Student Engagement Director Yewande Akinleye (the mentor) and Senior Student Success Manager Mario Hernandez (the mentee)
While January may be National Mentoring Month, on our Student Engagement team, mentoring is baked into virtually everything we do in support of students and each other throughout the year.
In my role overseeing our team’s robust mentoring program, my favorite part is getting to play “matchmaker” and connecting people based on their personalities, strengths, and areas of opportunity. I love managing an intentional, structured system that helps my teammates gain fresh insights from an experienced confidant—someone dedicated to supporting their unique goals and needs through regular listening, reflection, and feedback. That’s because I’ve seen first-hand how it has fueled innovation, elevated our commitment to diversity and inclusion, and helped hundreds of colleagues take their passion and success to the next level. And the learning goes both ways: Mentors can become even stronger leaders by serving in a trusted advisor role, and most of our mentors are mentees themselves!
Just as importantly, I’ve seen how our mentoring program makes a daily impact on how the team helps students find the right program to meet their goals—and then coaches them to remain motivated, engaged, and successful throughout their learning journey. At 2U, mentoring and coaching build upon the other in a symbiotic cycle of teaching, learning, applying, improving…and repeating.
Student Engagement Director Yewande Akinleye and Senior Student Success Manager Mario Hernandez are just one of our more than 250 mentor-mentee pairs doing just this kind of work together. As Mario’s manager, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth since they connected, and I know Yewande feels the same for herself. I recently connected with Yewande and Mario to learn more about their mutually beneficial dynamic and hope these conversation highlights inspire you to find a mentor or mentee of your own.
A scene from one of Yewande and Mario's regular one-on-one Zoom mentoring sessions
Hello to one of my favorite mentoring duos! So, mentorship: What does that word mean to you? And how do you personally define a successful mentorship connection?
Yewande: To me, mentorship means supporting the journey someone is on to become the best version of themselves. It’s about supporting the growth and expansion of your mentee’s abilities. Most importantly, it’s authentically showing up as someone who believes in who they are as a person.
Mario: Mentorship means having someone you can count on for support and encouragement through various challenges. It means having honest conversations and having someone who will challenge you to grow and develop your skills. A successful mentorship allows for ongoing advisement and open communication.
Both of your responses remind me of one of 2U’s Guiding Principles: Be candid, honest, and open. Since you first met, how have you structured your mentoring relationship and empowered each other? What’s an example of an important lesson you’ve learned from one another?
Yewande: Our relationship is structured in a thought-partnering way. We come to our regular Zoom meetings—Mario’s in Denver and I’m in Washington, D.C.—not with our titles but with a mutual understanding that we each have value the other can benefit from. Undoubtedly, we each walk away with a new perspective or more affirmed in our beliefs. There’s also a healthy nudge to step outside your comfort zone and never water down who you are at the core. I appreciate how authentic Mario is. He is open and bold but also carries a lot of compassion for others. It’s refreshing to know that vulnerability and strength can and often do successfully coexist in a person.
Mario: Yewande and I have worked in similar capacities at 2U in Student Engagement and Mosaic, one of 2U’s employee groups focused on diversity and inclusion. Having those crossovers has helped us be genuinely ourselves from the start—and that’s led us to find even more commonalities beyond our work at 2U, including our personal stories of moving to the U.S. and navigating different cultures and experiences. It’s been wonderful to make a connection with someone who has a similar journey and identity and who validates my ability to be a leader and coach to others in the organization.
Yewande brings a fresh, approachable vibe to her work and life in the Washington, D.C. area...
And you know we love rising leaders like yourself who are driven to help eliminate the back row in higher education. How have your mentorship learnings informed the way you coach—and advise others to coach—students?
Yewande: The experience of being a mentor has encouraged me to emphasize the power of empathy with those I lead. Approaching a relationship with empathy allows you to build a meaningful foundation. Empathy requires you to actively listen and support others, keeping them in the forefront, not yourself. It gives way to the kind of selflessness that inspires people to trust you, and ultimately that's what we want from students. We want them to know they can trust that we are here to help them succeed.
Mario: Whether it’s a weekly one-on-one meeting with my team or a monthly meeting with my mentee, I always have an open agenda where we can focus on business items, but also allow for time to address personal growth and goals. I think 2U’s culture reinforces candid conversations, which allows our teams to know they are valued and, in turn, they pass on that genuine coaching approach to interactions with students.
I love that notion of paying it forward. How do you see 2U supporting that ongoing culture of mentorship? Why do you believe it’s important for employers to offer mentorship opportunities?
Yewande: I believe that when employers offer mentorship opportunities, the business expands. Mentorship helps ensure that all of an organization’s employees can access the support they may need to bring their best selves to work. Speaking as a person of color and as a woman, it’s nurturing to have intentional cheerleaders in your corner. Mentorship in the workplace combats adversity and promotes diversity.
Mario: Our Student Engagement team allows employees to dedicate a portion of their week or month to their development, which means I can have honest conversations about my career and growth during my workday without having to sacrifice personal time. It’s built into the employee experience and feels genuine. No one’s forcing or requiring a cookie-cutter way of being a mentor or mentee. It’s all individualized and unique to each partnership. Mentoring programs like this help employees feel seen and valued and have stronger connections to their work and the mission of the organization.
...While Mario's ready to take flight to great heights wherever he goes in Denver
That’s amazing—I’m so glad I helped match you up! Both of you are clearly making the most of your connection. What’s your advice for others when it comes to establishing their own meaningful mentor/mentee relationship, at 2U or elsewhere?
Yewande: Remember that mentoring someone is an act of service. Humility and kindness is a great place to start. Don’t assume that, because you are a mentor, you can’t learn from your mentees. Show up authentically to encourage the other to do so as well. Also: Mentoring is fun. Work can be challenging at any given moment, but something about those moments with your mentee/mentor feels like a little battery charge.
Mario: Come into the relationship with an open mind. If there are certain goals you want to achieve and need help with, bring those to the conversation, but be open to the fact that you may find your colleague can support you in a lot of other ways you didn’t think of at first. I enjoy every conversation I have with Yewande and always leave with a smile on my face—and oftentimes with a new perspective I had not considered before.
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