Northern Illinois University

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Wendy Murphy
Wendy Murphy

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News Release

Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-4299

February 6, 2009

NIU Management course connects
students with mentors via e-mail

DeKalb, Ill. — The average e-mail in-box is crammed full of chain letters, fraudulent offers of foreign money and ads for discount pharmaceuticals. But a class of management students in the NIU College of Business got something far more useful last semester: mentoring.

After discovering that most of her students lacked a professional network to help them launch their careers, Professor Wendy Murphy set up an e-mentoring program to connect students and business professionals via e-mail.

“Research indicates that professionals who develop a network of mentors are promoted more quickly, earn more money and are more satisfied with their careers,” said Murphy, whose primary area of research is mentoring relationships. “I consider it important to teach my students how to establish those networks.”

She had heard of other business classes establishing “e-mentor” programs and thought the concept would work well at NIU. “It seemed like a great fit for us since so many of our alumni are local and are fairly involved in the university,” she said.

Chair of Management Sarah Marsh agreed. She liked the idea so much that she worked with Murphy to fast-track it, recruiting more than 30 mentors from the ranks of the department’s alumni in a matter of weeks. Mentors were drawn from a variety of industries and ranged from fairly junior managers to highly placed executives.

The class syllabus required students to contact their mentor four times.

The initial contact was to be an introduction, with subsequent e-mails asking the mentors for examples of how they handle issues that were discussed in class. Murphy offered students suggestions and examples of how to draft introductory e-mails, offered advice on how to put questions into context and coached students on how to conduct professional correspondence. Beyond that, however, the students and mentors were largely on their own.

Students were a bit skeptical at first, Murphy said. They found it difficult to believe that working professionals would have the patience or the inclination to spend much time explaining things to them. But once they made their initial contacts, any such doubts were soon erased.

“It quickly became obvious to everyone involved that the mentors truly cared about helping these students,” Marsh said. “Throughout the semester, every time I met one of the mentors at an event, all they wanted to talk about was how things were going with their student.”

That level of enthusiasm also was evident in the responses mentors sent to student questions. Commenting on topics that included diversity and ethics, communicating with employees and dealing with stress in the workplace, the mentors’ responses often went on for pages and were punctuated with frequent real-world examples to illustrate points.

“That was something that really impressed the students. It made the concepts and theories we discussed more understandable,” Murphy said. “They saw that the problems and solutions that we were studying in class were things that their mentors dealt with on a regular basis. As the semester progressed, the mentors’ responses greatly enhanced our discussions.”

At the conclusion of the semester, both students and mentors gave the program high marks. In fact, the most common frustration expressed by mentors was that they wanted to have more interaction with students. Several suggested that phone conversations or even face-to-face meetings be incorporated into the process.

Some students and mentors likely will keep in touch beyond the class, Murphy said. Two students already used their relationships with mentors to help them pursue internship opportunities.

While others might not benefit as strongly, Murphy said the process was worthwhile.

“It gave students practice in conducting professional correspondence and taught them how to build relationships with people more advanced in their careers, which is a valuable skill to have in the business world,” she said.

Murphy plans to continue the program this semester and extending it to a second class.

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