Alumni mentors help students navigate life decisions

Three years ago, the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA) began a pilot mentoring program to help Yale students tap into the wisdom of Yale alumni around the globe. The AYA enlisted more than 500 alumni volunteers and plans to soon expand the initiative to include alumni-to-alumni mentoring. 

Stephen Blum ’74 B.A.
Stephen Blum ’74 B.A.

Alumni are excited to impact the lives of students or other alums – it’s a ‘transfer of wisdom,’” says Stephen Blum ’74 B.A., director of strategic initiatives at AYA. Blum says the AYA is considering an online platform to scale the program, but, for now, the AYA continues to manage it — with help from a team of alumni volunteers led by Nancy Stratford ’77 B.A., who also chairs the AYA Board of Governors.

The guidelines are straightforward: Mentors and mentees read an orientation pamphlet and engage in a brief orientation call. Prospective mentors are asked to confirm that they have read and will abide by various Yale institutional guidelines. Once the mentees have been initiated, they are given access to a spreadsheet that omits names of mentors but includes biographical details like geography, academic background, limited career information, and hobbies. Mentees select and rank the four mentors they would like to be connected with. Each mentee is then assigned to one of their requested mentors.

This pairing process — matching 40-50 students with relevant alumni — happens three to four times each year. There are other mentoring programs on campus — at the graduate schools, and at campus entrepreneurship centers — but the AYA’s is the only one that is accessible to all students and alumni.

Answering life’s questions

The guidance provided by mentors is not limited to career advice, although that often plays a role. Mentors also help their mentees tackle academic decisions and social issues, and can act as a dependable confidant in times of pressure or uncertainty.

Dr. Xiaoyan Huang ’91 B.S.
Dr. Xiaoyan Huang ’91 B.S.

Dr. Xiaoyan Huang ’91 B.S. was matched with one first-generation student whose parents had immigrated from China. “She had to overcome a lot of difficulties,” Huang says. “Her parents didn’t know how college, pre-med, and medical school worked. Culturally a girl is supposed to settle down and get married. For her to go to medical school was quite different, and she had to overcome both financial and racial discrimination.” Huang was able to provide moral support and give practical advice on furthering her academic career. “I thought as a mentor I would offer her connections,” Huang says. “But she said: ‘I just want to learn about your experiences.’”

Huang also mentored Grace Pan ’17 B.S., who says she appreciated having a woman she could turn to who shared a cultural background and had successfully navigated Yale and leadership roles. “She gave me validation,” Pan says. “It was good to have someone to tell you: ‘You will be fine.’” Pan adds that her mentor “provided a model and encouraged me to pursue my studies in a broader way. She was an example of what a Yale woman was.” In 2016, Pan was named a Barry Goldwater Scholar. She is now pursuing a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard. Throughout Pan’s journey, Huang has followed her progress. “I got to watch her grow up and mature,” Huang says. “I went to one of her graduation talks. It’s so amazing. I learned from her how a young student thinks.”

While Huang did not have an official mentor during her undergraduate years, she says she benefited from having adult role models she could turn to for advice and support. In particular, she remembers feeling homesick during her sophomore year at Yale, and so lackluster that her roommate suggested she might have mononucleosis. When she went to the student health clinic, Huang opened up about her struggles to Dr. Jane Rasmussen. Rasmussen helped her find a job at the campus lab of her husband, Howard, a job that turned out to be transformative for Huang’s life journey — including inspiring her to pursue an M.D. at Stanford and an M.H.C.M. at Harvard. “She supported me professionally and personally — and I truly value that,” says Huang, who is now the medical director of clinical transformation at Providence Heart Institute in Portland, Oregon, and is a member of the AYA Board of Governors and president of the Yale Club of Oregon and SW Washington. 

Saloni Rao ’20 B.A.
Saloni Rao ’20 B.A.

Saloni Rao ’20 B.A., a Washington, D.C. native who has interned at the White House, was looking for guidance on how to navigate Yale and postgraduation options when she sought out a mentor from AYA. She joined the Yale College Council her freshman year and is now the YCC president – the first female president of Yale’s student government body in nine years. But Rao says she suffered from a persistent sense of “FOMO” – “fear of missing out “ — on all the resources Yale has to offer. She’s also an opera singer and wanted to connect with someone who understood both her academic and creative dimensions. She was matched with Cathy Kaplan ’74 B.A., an arts lover and senior counsel representing nonprofits at Sidley, who helped her think through creative career options in policy and public service. “She encouraged me to think broadly about my career options,” Rao says, adding “there are no traditional career paths anymore.”

Mentors at Yale understand the academic world and how that education can be translated into success in diverse fields. Paul Broholm ’78 B.A., who studied philosophy at Yale and is a director at InsingerGilissen, was first matched with a graduate student studying philosophy. “He wanted a sounding board,” Broholm says of the mentee. “He was finishing up his dissertation – which I’ve also done – and had questions about his publication choices. And he was looking at job offers and thinking about the implications of relocating with his wife, who was working on her own dissertation.” Broholm, who lives in Amsterdam and is a member of the AYA Board of Governors, was also matched with a mentee with a history degree, who was working in finance and wanted advice about his careers opportunities and whether he needed an M.B.A. “Students want someone to talk to who has a relevant perspective,” Broholm says. “I have been able to offer that.”

Interested in becoming or finding a Yale alumni mentor? Contact Steve Blum at stephen.blum@yale.edu.

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Brita Belli: brita.belli@yale.edu, 203-804-1911