Comment after comment at last week’s launch of Thuso Connect reinforced how this online mentoring platform for early career researchers is fulfilling a need in higher education.
Professor Stephanie Burton, project leader of Advancing Early Career Researchers and Scholars (AECRS), the Universities South Africa (USAf) programme that developed Thuso Connect – and the online toolkit Thuso Resources – said many institutions had expressed the need for mentorship of emerging academics.
This gap had first been identified in two national studies, followed up with extensive interviews and mapping of resources. Now the intervention Thuso Connect ‘’provides an effective, ethical way of introducing mentors and mentees”, she said.
Mr Bheki Hadebe (right), Director: High-End Skills at the Department of Science and Innovation, said a ministerial task team (one of those national studies), had identified the lack of role models and mentors as an impediment against the recruitment, retention and progression of black South African academics. The department hoped Thuso Connect – using the capabilities of digitalisation and information communication technologies – could help reduce the gulf between historically disadvantaged institutions and others in terms of access to mentorship and other necessary resources.
Members of the Project Advisory Committee (PAC). Back row from left: Dr Clifford Nxomani (NRF); Dr Leandra Jordaan (AECRS); Ms Janet van Rhyn, Project Manager at USAf and Mr Mahlubi Mabizela, USAf’s Director: Operations and Sector Support.. Front row from left, Mr Bheki Hadebe (DSI); Professor Stephanie Burton, AECRS’ Project Leader; Dr Phethiwe Matutu, USAf’s CEO and Professor Corli Witthuhn, Chair of the PAC.
Dr Clifford Nxomani, Deputy Chief Executive of the National Research Foundation, said mentorship could help sharpen researchers’ ability to make the right choices to unleash their potential along the path of professional growth. “’It doesn’t come naturally to have the necessary discernment about what you must do or not do along this path. You therefore need mentors to help you to navigate those choices,” he said.
There was much frivolity at the event when the idea of matching mentors and mentees online was compared to the dating app, Tinder. Yet if it doesn’t involve swiping left and right like Tinder, how does Thuso Connect work in practice?
Dr Leandra Jordaan (left), project researcher for AECRS, explained its ins and outs.
What registering involves
Signing up to join the platform is a bit like creating a LinkedIn profile, she said. “’You’re creating a professional profile,” she said. She estimated it would take about 15 minutes as participants were required to provide a biography and answer a few other questions. Jordaan said the time investment is comparatively minimal. “We’re not asking you to come to networking sessions, hour after hour, in the hope that you meet someone that could mentor you.” Instead of chance encounters, Thuso Connect uses a tried and tested algorithm.
Once matched, the platform informs mentors and mentees via email. Participants could be matched to someone in a different province because their needs and personalities were a fit. This means that Thuso Connect opens up more possibilities than if people relied on connecting professionally with someone already in their institutional circle or discipline. “That’s what we want,” said Jordaan.
The questions participants need to answer on registration relate to their discipline as well as other areas of interest because if both are looking for goal-setting skills, for example, that will help them get matched.
There is also a question about hobbies and interest. “This is a personality question, to make sure that people who have some things in common beyond the work could potentially also be matched,” said Dr Jordaan. As a runner, she said it would probably be easier for her if her mentor understood what it entails and could be more understanding if she announced she was going for a run.
Research had shown that many mentoring programmes fail. Thuso Connect, a localised version of the mentoring platform created by the American company Wisdom Share, aims to work against this by, for example, providing a milestones system to guide the two parties.
Jordaan said mentoring often fails because of a lack of skill about how to be a mentee or mentor. “Mentees don’t know how to be a mentee, and mentors have knowledge that can be very hard to share because they just know things and are not sure why they know them,” she said. “There are a lot of soft skills needed in mentorship. And it takes years to build that skillset. It’s not an easy thing to do and it’s not an easy thing to teach other people to do,” she said.
Thuso Connect will guide mentees on how to ask proper questions and how to set goals to succeed in the partnership. The two parties will sign a mentorship partnership agreement so that they are aware of what they are working towards.
The platform also has additional information to help with the mentoring process, such as planning meeting agendas. “Are you meeting once a week, once a month, after hours, or within office hours? Are you also meeting in person and having coffee?” said Jordaan.
She said Thuso Connect was in a league of its own. “We didn’t find something on this scale and on this level in the world.” She said universities in the South African higher education sector “are all the same but differently the same – we do the same things, but we do them differently. So it will be an interesting outcome to see if those different cultures work on this mentorship platform.”
Wisdom Share claims very high rates of matching and retention successes (98.6% and 70% respectively) and Jordaan said they would be happy even if they could achieve 10% less than that.
Thuso Connect will be registering mentors first. “We’re going to have mentors, people with years of experience, trying to have a mentorship partnership with someone who is younger and wants things to happen quickly. So, if there’s any troubleshooting at the beginning, we might lose the people who have signed up to be mentored and we don’t want that. We want something that’s ready to go and that people can use without too many issues,” she said.
Data is secure, and so are the participants
Dr Jordaan said the appeal of working with a company such as Wisdom Share is their decades of experience and high security levels.
She said AECRS had taken South Africa’s high levels of gender-based violence into account. They had added a way for participants to contact them if they were not comfortable with the mentorship partnership. Thuso Connect also has a feedback form for any other types of comments participants would like to highlight.
An appeal to mentors to register
Mr Mahlubi “Chief” Mabizela, Director of Operations and Sector Support at USAf, said mentorship had been identified as a key need for emerging career researchers. “We listened and therefore this programme is grounded on empirical research.” He urged people to register.
Professor Burton said mentorship is not simple but people who are developing careers need wisdom and guidance from those who are more experienced than themselves. She appealed to people to register as mentors and to ask their colleagues to consider it too. She said retired academics are also welcome to register and they would be approaching such groups of people through professional and academic organisations. The next invitation would be for mentees to join.
Thuso Connect is on https://thusoconnect.mywisdomshare.com
Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa