The Three Crucial Relationships to Get Right at College

In another endless season of rankings and scorecards, I marvel at how often we measure everything except what seems to matter most for student learning. Too often, debates about education focus on the components: courses, books, majors, co-curricular activities, and strategic plans.

But it would be a mistake to reduce colleges to these parts.

black students on campus
Students who get the most from college develop important relationships. (Twenty20 @erykahhill81)


In truth, at their core, colleges are bundles of people. The quality of education is driven by the relationships between them that form (or do not). Students get the deepest education from colleges that focus on getting the relationships right, particularly in three critical areas:

Three crucial relationships students need to develop in college

1. The power of mentors:

A great college experience starts with student-faculty relationships. As Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs write in their book How College Works,

The most valuable relationships students have with teachers are mentorships. These entail a significant personal and professional connection, lasting more than just one course or semester. They cannot simply be assigned, but neither do they happen just by accident.

Mentorship happens when faculty, coaches, and staff take the time to care about students to connect with them. Mentors see themselves as catalysts for students, encouraging them to ask good questions, develop goals, and learn to achieve. In short, mentorship produces intellectual and ethical growth. It is central to the learning process.

As one example, I think about the recent Denison alumnus who remarked that the class a professor would not let him drop turned out to be crucial to his intellectual awakening because he was challenged to perform at a higher level and develop self-confidence.

And there is the Denison student who was challenged by a faculty advisor to run for student body president (despite never having run for anything), now an advisor for a U.S. senator. When looking at colleges with my children, student-faculty relationships were the thing that I mostly tried to gauge.

Unfortunately, the magic of mentorship cannot be planned or scripted. A college can assign an advisor but not a mentor. We can, however, create an environment where the odds of mentorship taking place are enhanced by doing two things:

First, we must value it by putting mentorship at the forefront of who we are and what we do. We need to talk about it and respect it. We must recognize that students often develop mentoring relationships by working with faculty in small classes and colleges where faculty feel valued, respected, and supported.

Second, we need to expand the pool of people on campus who think of themselves as mentors. Last spring, I asked students at Denison to list their mentors. They always listed at least one faculty member, and I was pleased with how often they included people who work in residential halls, IT, the library, and the facilities staff.

I was also heartened by how grateful they were to student development staff, campus safety officers, administrative assistants, and others who mentored them in moments of crisis when they were struggling with classes, friends, or issues back home.

2. The power of peers:

Students learn a tremendous amount from each other. This is one reason why diversity is so important. For many students, this may be the first time they have experienced the richness of a community with a wide range of people who have had life experiences that are different from their own.

As they bump up against differences of all kinds (e.g., race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views, religious practices) both in the classroom and across campus, they learn from one another how to be adults who can live and work with different people. They see differences as interesting, fun, and important for good decision-making.

We must treat the campus as a place where students build, govern, and sustain community. Residential halls, student organizations, athletic teams, and arts groups create key interactions where students push and prod one another in an environment of trust and respect.

At Denison, we have become more focused on encouraging students to understand that one of their educational goals should be to form friendships with people who see the world differently than they do. We also are doing a lot of work on getting campus organizations that don’t normally work together to collaborate on projects and events.

Some of this work happens in moments of conflict. On college campuses, people collide in ways that can lead to explosive moments. Those clashes are painful because they lead to disagreement, misunderstanding, and opposing needs. But those are the moments where learning and community growth happen. Students ask hard questions, develop empathy, and push each other to be better people while pushing their college to be a better place.

3. The power of networking:

When students select a college, they are welcomed into a network of alumni, parents, and local community members. These relationships are important sources of internships, externships, job connections, and lifelong mentors. At Denison, like many liberal arts colleges, we are paying far more attention to creating more intentional pathways for these interactions. Students hear the life stories of alumni and others, which is a powerful way to inspire students while transmitting small and large lessons.

Research by the Gallup Organization found that college success depends on Students having a professor who makes them excited about learning;

  • Professors who cared about them as a person;
  • A mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams;
  • The opportunity to work on a long-term project;
  • A job or internship where they applied what they were learning and/or
  • Deep involvement in extra-curricular activities.

This is consistent with years of research conducted by the National Student Survey of Engagement (NSSE).

Each of these benchmarks of success is fundamentally about relationships. We need public policies, strategic plans, and conversations that focus on getting the relationships right. If we need rankings (the topic for another post), we need to find a better way to measure relationships’ strength and capacity to endure over time. The quality of the educational experience and the depth of learning comes from the strength of the relationships.

As a college president, I have been struck by a clear disconnect: With a few notable exceptions, the books being written and the public policies being drafted generally fail to address relationships, ignoring the centrality of mentorship and friendship. Yet, ask alumni who are grateful for their college experiences; that is almost all they talk about.

More Great Reads:

College Fit: What It Is and Why It’s So Important


About Adam Weinberg

Adam Weinberg became the 20th president of Denison University in 2013. Dr. Weinberg has focused on positioning Denison in ways that address the major issues facing higher education in the 21st century, including affordability, career readiness, internationalization, civic education, learning outcomes, and social inclusion.

Under Dr. Weinberg’s leadership, Denison has expanded the curriculum with a new generation academic programs, global programs, and a deepening of the arts, including the construction of the Michael D. Eisner Center for the Performing Arts. Denison’s new programs in Global Commerce, Data Analytics, Financial Economics, Narrative Journalism, and Health, Exercise and Sports Studies are forging new pathways for the liberal arts.

A second major area of emphasis has been career exploration. Denison has launched the Austin E. Knowlton Center for Career Exploration, which is reinventing how liberal arts colleges prepare students for careers and professions. For this work, Dr. Weinberg was recognized by the National Association of Colleges and Employers for innovation with the inaugural 2017 Career Services Champion Award. Dr. Weinberg is heavily involved in national conversations about career preparation through his work with The Council on Competitiveness and The Columbus Partnership.

Previously, he was vice president and dean of the college at Colgate University, where he was a member of the sociology department for more than a decade. A native of Texas, Dr. Weinberg’s passion for ice hockey took him to New England, where he attended Deerfield Academy and Bowdoin College, graduating magna cum laude. He studied at Cambridge University before earning his master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from Northwestern University. Dr. Weinberg lives on campus with his wife Anne. He has three children and two dogs. (Source: Denison University website.)

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