Transitioning to Mentor in College

I was wondering how others have handled transitioning from a FIRST student to a mentor. I have already been in contact with a team that I will be mentoring. They’re the house team for the college I will be attending in the fall, and their build space is on campus which will be nice. Any thoughts are appreciated!

  1. Go to class.
  2. Don’t fail out.
  3. FIRST will still be there if you need a year off.
  4. Go to class.

My advice, having just finished my first year of college and mentoring, is to manage your time responsibly and that school comes first.

Some will try to talk you out of mentoring your freshman year. I just urge you to think seriously about whether you have the maturity and responsibility to juggle your obligations. College is hard and you will get lots of homework. If you’re not sure you’re ready, your team will surely understand if you want to take an FRC gap year.

Remember, when you are a mentor, you are fully in control of how much time you put into it. Keep in mind that if schoolwork gets rough, you can cut back on time spent mentoring; your team will understand. I enjoy mentoring, and while I hated to do so, I did skip a whole bunch of meetings to make sure I got my homework and studying done.

For anyone reading this who is considering mentoring their high school team, I strongly recommend getting involved with another team that you have not been a student on. Teams work in different ways, and I believe that the knowledge and perspective gained by working with a new team is the fastest way to grow as a mentor. My experience mentoring 2791 has made me a more effective mentor for 1257, and vice versa.

This is a good life lesson as well: never stop learning. FRC encompasses such a diverse set of technical and non-technical skills. Continue developing your areas of expertise, but try and pick up new skills along the way.

Make sure you try new things and get involved with activities that aren’t FRC. You never know what you’ll find, and you may find something you would rather put your time into than mentoring. College presents a really amazing set of extracurricular activities. Don’t let yourself miss out without giving some a try.

If anyone has questions, feel free to ask here or PM me.

Also, go to class.

Being a member and being a mentor are two very different things. Mentoring during my freshman year of college made it difficult to recognize those differences because I was basically the same age as the members.

I personally don’t feel I really started acting like a mentor until I took my junior year off (from mentoring, not volunteering) and came back my senior year.

Billfred has got it right.

This post and the thread it comes from has some really good insight. This has been brought up almost every summer on here, some even more searching will bring more advice. I encourage you to do some research on here to read about other people’s experiences in the other threads.

When I went about mentoring in College, I put it up front that it is just about my last priority. I told the other mentors n the team that there will be times when I wouldn’t be around for 2-3 weeks for projects and tests, etc. I took on almost no responsibility, but made sure to contribute when I could.

Now, it helps that I currently “mentor” (I find the term “mentor” in college deceiving, you’re still a student) a team that consists of A LOT of college students. Brando and company understand what its like to be involved in FIRST while being at school, and it is always stressed to both high school and college students that school comes first.

Find yourself a good schedule and rhythm for meeting during the fall so that you can create a game-plan for yourself during build season. DO NOT GO TO ROBOTICS EVERY DAY.

The most important thing about “mentoring” in college, and mentoring in general, is being open to continuous learning. You will still be learning from everyone around you. Don’t forget that because you’re not in High School, doesn’t mean you know everything about building a robot.

The tone of this post, and others too, probably puts off a “Don’t do it” vibe. I don’t want to push anyone away from the program. I sincerely hope that you can figure it out for yourself, because it is still a great experience to stay involved with FIRST. Just please be careful with your involvement, it can seriously take away from 4(+) of the most important years of your life.

I think the most important thing is to set really low expectations. Make it very clear up front that you school is your first priority and you’ll come when you can and help out to the best of your ability in small ways, but that you do not want a key role because you just don’t know if you’ll be able to fill it. That way if life/school/whatever really does get in the way it’ll be much easier to disentangle yourself & focus on what is best for you.

I didn’t mentor in college (there are many other interesting things in life besides high school robotics competitions!), but when I came back as a just-out-of-college mentor I made basically the same mistake.

If you want some more reading, try out the search tool and there are probably 100 threads on this topic.

On the other hand, if you are predisposed towards towards addiction, perhaps you are not fully in control of how much time you put into it. Decide early how much time you are willing to put in, and be ready to pull completely out if you can’t manage it properly. Your future self will thank you.

If you can provide a reliable timeframe that you will b available, this can help teams figure out how to use you.
For instance,
I commit to Saturday 8-4 every Saturday. Weekday participation may occur, but I will be there every Saturday.

This let’s a team know that they should not count on you to be a subsystem lead, but instead can have you help a system lead on Saturdays where ore efforts tend to b required.

While I personally think it’s a good idea to take a year off when you start college (gives you a chance to figure college life out and helps to create a real break mentally between being a student and being a mentor), although even in a year off I still encourage taking a weekend to volunteer for an event! If you do want to keep mentoring, it’s really all about being proactive with your scheduling.

Start by talking with your professors. Explain the program to them, and ask them about expected class load Jan-Apr, as well as expected test dates. Figure out when you can expect to devote time to the team, and when you can expect to devote time to your own educational obligations. Find out if the professors are flexible enough for you to miss classes for events, or handle tests at other times if they happen to fall during events. Then make up a rough schedule to share with the team leadership so they know what to expect… and then let them know when things change, as early as possible! Having a high level of communication surrounding your availability and scheduling is absolutely critical, and something many younger individuals struggle with. If you have to err, err on the side of over-communicating and let them tell you when it’s too much!

As a student, it’s not really that big of a deal if you have to take an unexpected night off for homework or to study. Sure, things don’t get done as quickly, but the team continues. As a mentor, it can be a very big deal. It can be the difference between a team meeting or not (for example, my team has a 2-mentor rule - if we don’t have at least 2 mentors present, the team isn’t meeting, period). It can be the difference between having enough experienced eyes to ensure machines are running safely, or having to lock down machines and run fewer at one time. Having a mentor unexpectedly not show up for a meeting forces everyone else to scramble to cover the gap. Even when a mentor has a scheduled night-off, it can be difficult, and I find myself always making sure things are set up and work is planned out ahead of any planned off-nights I have.

A lot of good advice is already here, especially that you really need to make sure you keep your priorities in line (put your education first), and being cognizant the effects of a mentor being missing.

Definitely be thoughtful planning your class schedule. During the spring/winter term, you may want to have a block of time free on a day or two a week that the team has build. But you should also have enough time for homework, any job you might have, and a little time to decompress on the weekends. This is a tough balancing act. Since you’re mentoring a house team at your college, there are probably upperclassmen whose advice and experience you can ask about. Ask a bunch of them, especially any in your intended major. They don’t know everything, but they’re less lost than you, and have probably made mistakes you’re trying to avoid.

This ties in, but planning skills and setting expectations are key. Once you’ve planned your schedule, make sure the team knows when you’ll be there. And then be there. Other mentors, and key students, will generally plan their schedules to mesh well with one another, those with more flexible schedules planning around those whose are less flexible. If you have to miss a day you would ordinarily attend, make sure people have as much advance warning as possible, to minimize adverse impact. Over-communicate.

I don’t know if you’re on the technical side, or non-technical side, or where you specialize, but also think of things you can do to help students when your schedule doesn’t permit you to be at the build space. That might look like collaborating on CAD, giving feedback on documents, any sort of strategic discussion, and probably other things I’m not thinking of right now…

These things are all skills that you’ll very much want in the real world too. Good communication skills, planning, and using your resources well are all vital skills for working on any team. Remember that while you’re a mentor, who knows FIRST, and has been through a few seasons, you’re also still very much a work in progress. If you’re going to do it, make sure you have the maturity and skills necessary to put the students first, the time to do it right, and the drive to do all of this without harming your education obligations. But if you do, not only will you contribute to the students’ growth, but you’ll also grow a lot in the process.

This is so so so important! You are paying thousands of dollars a year to go to college so make it your number one priority! On top of that, you need to realize that you are no longer a student, and you won’t be helping anyone if you still act like one. You will only be a year older than some of the students on the team that you are mentoring, and while it may seem natural to try and just be best friends with them, you need to remember that you are a mentor now and need to give yourself some distance if you want any respect.

Mentoring while in college is tough. I did it my first two years and then was on co-op rotations the following two years (08 +09).

A few things:

  1. Remind yourself you’re not a student on the team. This means you’ll be adjusting to filling in a new role and it can be tough to take the “step back” and help the students on the team feel accountable for the success of the team, and not rely on you to do the work as if you were a student on the team
  2. Remind the students on the team that you are not a student on the team. You may not be older than everyone on the team. They’ll want to treat you like a fellow high school student. You have to make sure to set the appropriate tone for the student-mentor relations you build.
  3. Go to class
  4. School comes first
  5. Consider volunteering at events rather than mentoring for at least your first year.
  6. Find tasks that contribute to a successful team, but are not required (examples could be things like helping to organize inventory or helping some students build some kind of build blog or engineering notebook. Etc.)
  7. School comes first
  8. Go to class
  9. Oh, and remember you (or someone) is paying for you to go to college and you should probably make sure it comes first.

This part of your response made me stop to think a bit… It’s 100% correct for a young mentor fresh out of being a team member. Being a mentor is a different role, and that affects your interaction with the students. For older mentors, however, almost the exact opposite is true! Kids are typically raised to have a healthy respect for people in their parent’s generation, and that can create a barrier between the mentor and the students that needs to be removed to create a good, open working environment for the team. It prevents the students from pushing for their ideas, and creates a “yes-man” attitude where the mentor is always right.

I think the point is, there’s a zone of interaction you’re aiming for. You don’t want to be too friendly, or you won’t be respected as a mentor, but you also don’t want to be too aloof or superior either, or you’ll be more of a dictator than a mentor. When there’s down time (like group lunch/dinner during the build season), spend it with the other mentors. When you’re working with students to help solve a problem, don’t say “this is the solution” - talk them through the thought process so they come up with something themselves, and then if applicable present 2-4 other possible solutions for them to consider. Remember, as a mentor your experience and knowledge doesn’t mean you know how to build a better robot, it means you’re able to articulate to them the pros and cons of different solutions so they understand the decision they make, instead of just choosing “option C, because that’s how we take tests these days”.