What’s the difference between a friend and a mentor? Is it possible to distinguish two separate lanes for each of these important roles within a student’s support network? On a personal level the differences can be evaluated through unique relational dynamics, but finding a clear line between friendship and mentorship on a broader scale is a challenge - even for the experts.
Can a friend be a mentor? Can a mentor become a friend? The short response is an academic’s “Once Upon a Time”...It depends.
More than 200,000 mentorships since our founding [and centuries of mentorship prior to that] have left an indelible mark on individuals navigating their academic and professional lives. Through a mentor’s guidance, we feel better prepared to approach situations outside of our comfort zone or when we encounter barriers on the pathways to our goals. Friends can do that too, though, right?
Here are the answers we’ve gathered from the in-house instructional designers that help Mentor Collective mentors and mentees make the most of their program. Throughout this list, we’ve also pulled together the personal perspectives of some of our team members to show how they view the difference between mentorship and friendship in their own lives.
Boundaries make all the difference.
Generally when we’re in a position to make or converse with friends, we feel out personal boundaries through conversations that happen over time. A situation may arise now and then that requires us to establish boundaries for our wellbeing (and possibly the sake of the friendship), but generally a friendship sets and manages boundaries fluidly and when needed.
Setting boundaries as a mentor is an intentional practice that, when implemented consistently, actually limits the emotional and physical fatigue of both parties and helps the relationship flourish. For structured mentorship programs, Mentor Collective’s mentor training curriculum encourages mentors to set boundaries with their mentees early on. Boundaries, like when a mentor is available to chat with their mentee, are established in the first mentorship conversation as the pair gets to know one another.
Empathy is expressed differently by friends and mentors.
Friendship offers a level of intimacy/affection as a means of support, whereas a mentor may demonstrate empathy in more pragmatic ways, such as by sharing a favorite skill-building resource.
Both a mentor and a friend can be there as an empathic ear, but their mechanism of support creates nuance within each role. When a friend empathizes with you, they’re more likely to stay within the realm of identity support – showing understanding, sharing similar circumstances that validate feelings, and possibly providing comfort through contact or diversion.
A mentor shows empathy, but makes a point of offering the targeted support that allows a mentee to advance out of a situation/challenge. Mentors direct their mentee to additional resources before speculating or providing opinions; especially if a mentee is facing something that requires guidance from a professional such as a counselor or academic advisor. In a higher-ed environment, a mentor is a connector to helpful resources that allows students to become familiar and feel valued within their school community.
Mentors provide access. Friends provide support.
With friends, we develop expectations gradually through our experiences. We gain, assess, and refine our understanding of those expectations – along with trust – based on behaviors, words, and actions.
Mentors come with a different set of expectations, because their role is to provide practical strategies, resources, and referrals based on the mentee’s aspirations and barriers. The expectations are set – like boundaries -- in the initial stages of getting to know one another, but do evolve as the mentor does their own assessing and refining of what will best suit the mentee.
The best way to think of this difference is to think about a mentor investing their time and sharing their network, while a friend shares their time and invests themselves.
A final note on friendship and mentorship.
In an age where strangers on social media are our “besties” and we’ve come out of social isolation with a craving for connection, a great place to start for anyone embarking on a mentorship is to explore their personal definitions of “friend” and “friendly.”
Too often lines are blurred because we don’t take the time to understand our own boundaries with these terms. This kind of introspection is not only helpful, it’s necessary to navigate everything from the responsibilities we accept to how we spend our time.
Just like our friendships, each mentoring relationship we encounter may look different, and over time mentors may become friends. If they don’t, that doesn’t diminish their impact, it just means that we’ve grown and are ready to take one step closer to our fullest potential.