J-School launches online program to connect students with alumni mentors


Leaving college, for almost any student, opens up a box of unknowns and questions about the future. Looking for the best possible situation and career path and acting according to ‘real world’ standards can be a tall task for a student who has never experienced anything like it before.

For the last year, Ann Brill, dean of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, has focused on making that bridge — from student to professional — easier for graduates. She’s gone to San Francisco and New York and several cities in between to determine how exactly to make that transition easier for students.

The answer, Brill believes, is mentoring between current students and alumni with a personal touch, using a web-based program called PeopleGrove. Expanding that connection between current and former students is key for Brill.

“It’s a huge priority for me, because it brings together two groups that I care passionately about,” Brill said. “And to connect those groups, like we did at J-School Generations, that did some of that, but this is a much bigger scale.”

The platform will serve as a hub for several types of mentoring, and both alumni and students will choose the extent of the mentoring. 

The main components will be flash mentoring — a one-time session — and long-term mentoring, where a student will be assigned to an alumnus for a semester or even a year. But even beyond that, it will be a center for alumni to communicate with students via frequently asked questions, feedback on work, videos, personal growth and development materials, and even curated research papers that can be of assistance to students.

As career and outreach coordinator at the School of Journalism, Steve Rottinghaus often works with students trying to make a connection to the professional world. For him, the platform serves an invaluable purpose.

“In general, it’s just being a voice, a sounding board, where you can ask a question and they can kind of give you a direction,” Rottinghaus said. “A common question I get is, 'I really want to start in Chicago, New York, West Coast; is there any way you can kind of help me connect with an alum?’… This mentoring platform should make it a lot easier to build those connections with alums.”

While connecting to professionals is a concept similar to LinkedIn, People Grove is quite a bit different. The hub will serve as a place for Jayhawks — and Jayhawks only — to connect, but it will allow them to do that in a more personable way than on a website like LinkedIn. 

Mark Mears (j’84), who is assisting in coordinating the platform and serving as an executive in residence at the school, described the platform as more a match.com but for career and individual development. In general, People Grove exists to create lasting relationships between students and alumni, where LinkedIn is often more disconnected.

“This can be more of a relationship … because LinkedIn is pretty neutral, in terms of that,” Mears said. “Mentoring is really offering advice and support and getting to know people, where LinkedIn might just be an introduction. And LinkedIn is not that effective when it comes to really connecting people.”

Even before this new KU journalism alumni mentoring program, mentorship has served valuable to students for years. For both Mears and Matt Gardner (j’01), mentorship steered them to new fields in journalism they weren’t considering before. 

Mears created the Bengston Faculty Mentoring award in honor of his mentor and now-retired journalism professor, Tim Bengston, who encouraged Mears to forgo law school and explore his talents in public relations. Now, Mears has an incredibly successful public relations career.

“It’s a personal passion of mine because I have had the benefits of some outstanding mentors who took time to walk alongside me and provide me with advice and counsel and coaching,” Mears said.

For Gardner, his mentors were mostly professional, helping him to carve his path in a world that was newly digital when he left college, expanding beyond just the written work he had done in school. 

“I was very fortunate while I was KU in the early part of my career to have people around me that I felt comfortable reaching out to for direction,” said Gardner, who now oversees digital strategy for the St. Louis Blues. “Those mentors were pretty invaluable to my growth as a professional and teaching me ways that I could not only improve myself personally and professionally, but giving me the opportunity to seek out opportunities and take me out of my comfort zone.”

The new program will give more students the ability to form mentoring relationships and connect alumni and students in a way they haven’t connected before. Students and alumni are encouraged to sign up for the program to begin matching and connecting at mentoring.ku.edu.

Now, people like Mears and Gardner have an outlet to share their experiences and mentor students, just like those before them.

“I believe it is a responsibility to give back,” Mears said. “If you've been blessed to have someone invest in you, it's like planting seeds, and you want to then scatter your own seeds to help mentor other people and help them along their career journeys as well.”

-- Christian Hardy is a senior majoring in news and information from Derby, Kansas.