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Students benefit, and Eberly alumni give back, through Mentoring Program

7 November 2019
Isiah Holt stands in the 2.3-acre dish of the Green Bank Telescope. Credit: Green Bank Observatory

Initially launched in the Department of Biology, the Eberly College of Science’s Mentoring Program expanded once Dean Doug Cavener, then department head, recognized its value and championed its implementation college wide.

The program aims to connect students and alumni by providing an opportunity for ongoing, collaborative engagement. Alumni mentors share their knowledge, expertise, and experience by advising on career paths, helping students develop professionalism and networking skills, and serving as a sounding board.

The Office of Alumni Relations matches students with alumni based primarily on the student’s career interests and major, with additional considerations given to experience level, geographic preferences, and shared Penn State experiences.

Ryan Lynch ’06, who holds dual bachelor of science degrees—in astronomy and astrophysics and in physics—from Penn State, answered the mentoring call last fall and was matched with Isiah Holt, a fourth-year astronomy and astrophysics major.

“Professor Jane Charlton at Penn State was my first academic mentor, and she gave me an opportunity to get involved in research that has paid dividends throughout my career,” Lynch recalled. “I strongly feel that I have the responsibility to do the same and do what I can to help the upcoming generation of young astronomers and physicists. I also really enjoyed and got a lot out of my time at Penn State, and so being able to give back to my alma mater was especially important.”

Lynch, an associate scientist at Green Bank Observatory, seemed like an ideal fit for Holt, who wanted a better understanding of the job market for astronomy majors and to identify how best to position himself for career success. Following an email introduction, the two met virtually for the first time using Google Hangouts.

“At first, I was a little nervous because I was meeting an official in a field that I want to devote my life to,” Holt said. “However, the more we met, I felt like this mentorship was one of the best choices I have made in my academic career. We discussed what my goals are and how I plan to achieve those goals before graduate school.”

Thanks in part to the Mentoring Program, Holt learned of a competitive summer student research assistantship program run by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). Since its inception in 1959, NRAO’s program has welcomed more than 1,000 students to conduct research. Holt’s application was highly rated by a team of research mentors, leading to his selection from a pool of more than 200 applicants. NRAO welcomes students across three sites, one of which is Green Bank Observatory.

“Becoming successful in life cannot be done by yourself,” Holt said. “Having someone that can guide you to achieve your goals is very valuable. Students that want to get ahead in their career want to reach out to alumni but may be scared or unsure how to talk to them. This can lead to many missed opportunities. However, by being a mentor to these students, it gives them a medium to contact alumni without feeling nervous because the alumni have already agreed to helping them out.”

Connecting with an alumnus or alumna in a student’s field of interest is an invaluable asset that can provide important differentiation, considerations, and opportunities, according to Matt Powell ’89, chair of the mentoring subcommittee of the college’s Alumni Society Board, who also holds a bachelor of science degree in physics from Penn State.

Several hundred students and alumni have participated in the Mentoring Program since its inception a decade ago, and the college is keen to grow participation.

Applications for the Mentoring Program are accepted on a rolling basis. If alumni are not matched initially, their profiles will be retained in the college’s program database in LionLink. Alumni are always welcome to participate in on-campus mentoring workshops, whether they have been formally paired or not.

“Being able to connect with someone at Penn State and to share and contrast our experiences was a lot of fun,” Lynch said. “For alumni, you get to give something to the next generation, and you have an opportunity to meet really talented young students who may one day end up being your own students, colleagues, or employees.”