The importance of mentoring and finding community for online students  

Christina Baciu in her graduation robes holding a diploma

By Cristina Baciu

Baciu is a two-time NAU alumna who earned a master’s in educational leadership in 2019 and a doctorate if educational leadership in 2022. She currently works as a research program manager at Arizona State University. She is the co-founder and co-director of the Arizona Cancer Evolution Center (ACE) Scholars Program and the Cooperation Scholars Program. In both research and practice, she is interested in mentoring students, barriers to students’ success, and the intersections between technology and higher education. During her time at NAU, she served as a representative of the College of Education in the Graduate Student Government and was a working group member of the Impactful Research, Scholarly, and Creative Activities team for the Strategic Roadmap Initiative with the Office of the President.  

Many people, myself included, walked across the graduation stage in December. I graduated with a doctorate in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University, where I’ve earned both my master’s and doctorate degrees online. Having experienced online education for my entire graduate education career, I know firsthand how important mentoring is for online students, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned.  

With a full-time job and a family to manage, I enthusiastically seized the opportunity to earn my degrees online from NAU. Throughout my time at the university, I was fortunate to form meaningful relationships with staff and faculty and pursue multiple opportunities that have enriched my educational experiences. I never once felt like an outsider or like my experience was somehow lessened because I wasn’t attending classes on campus. In fact, I would argue that my experience as an online student has been richer in many ways, mostly due to the support and community I found in student organizations and by interacting with staff and faculty across the university in various capacities.   

Online learning has been such a rich experience for me because of the faculty mentorship I sought and  received along the way. My mentors were crucial in helping me reach my academic goals and stay on track throughout my degree programs. They supported me in every way possible, whether it be by providing feedback on papers, lending a listening ear or offering advice on academic topics and beyond. Their guidance has been invaluable, and I know that I would not be where I am today without their help. During my time at NAU, through my research and personal experience, I’ve learned that there are several reasons why mentoring is so important for online students. 

Mentoring provides individualized support. 

One of the benefits of mentoring is that it provides individualized support based on the mentee’s needs and goals. When you have a mentor, you have someone who is invested in your success and who can provide you with tailored advice and guidance. This is especially important for online students, who may not have the same opportunities to interact with professors and peers on a regular basis.  

Mentors can help you overcome challenges. 

Whether you’re struggling with a particular class or  feeling overwhelmed by the demands of your program, your mentor can provide you with the support you need to get through it. It is highly unlikely that a mentor has all the answers, but she or he can actively listen and connect you with the resources you may need to succeed. A mentor will often serve as a sounding board, someone you can run ideas by and who can help you see and find various approaches.  

Mentors can serve as career guides.   

Mentors can help you navigate the job market and connect with potential employers. If you’re looking for advice on your post-graduate plans or tips on how to network effectively, your mentor can be an invaluable resource. By learning about your goals, a mentor can share information about various opportunities. They might even introduce you to their network, providing you with further social and professional connections.  

The most effective mentoring relationships thrive in an environment where both the mentor and the mentee have focused on creating a safe space for non-judgmental, open and transparent conversations and brainstorms to happen. Mentees have different needs, but in general, online students appreciate being supported both in the psychological and emotional domain and the academic and career one. Mentoring is beneficial to all students but perhaps even more so to online and non-traditional students who might have to work harder to navigate the hidden curriculum in higher education (aka the things you don’t even know you don’t know). 

As someone who has benefitted from mentoring relationships throughout my academic career, I strongly believe in the power of mentoring to help individuals achieve their goals while pursuing an online education. If you’re feeling lost or unsure about how to achieve success in your online program, reach out to someone who can offer guidance and support. You may just find yourself surprised by how helpful they can be! 

NAU Communications