Storytelling and humanism: A new college mentoring theory

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Dr Joshua Cruz is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Texas Tech University. His work involves giving theoretical backing to qualitative methods. In particular, he is interested in improving the experience of college students. Many high school students – especially low-income, minority, first-generation students – lack the mentorship needed to succeed in further education. Is there a better theory of mentoring? Dr Cruz thinks so, and he suggests a turn towards storytelling and humanism.

When it comes to college preparation, many students struggle with a fear of the unknown. This is especially true for first-generation students, who may not have a close friend or family member who can share their experiences of college. While mentoring as a college preparation strategy is nothing new, it has not had much rigorous theoretical backing. Dr Joshua Cruz, assistant professor in the College of Education at Texas Tech University, argues that a mentoring programme based on humanism and storytelling may encourage high school students – especially those from underrepresented minorities – to apply to college and take their education to the next level.


The challenge for high school students

Dr Cruz is concerned with the number of students entering college feeling ill-prepared or ill-equipped, despite the abundance of services that exist to prepare them. Students often appear unaware that such services exist or simply do not know how to access them. This is especially true of students underrepresented in college, including minorities and first-generation college students. One way to improve this would be to familiarise students with the college environment before they arrive. This can be achieved through mentoring.

Along with his co-authors, Dr Cruz launched a new mentoring programme to see if it could better prepare high school students for college. It was aimed at high school seniors attending Arizona State University Preparatory Academy. The mentoring would be targeted at first-generation low-income Hispanic students, and would take a humanistic, culturally relevant, and meaningful approach. The primary goal of the research was to discover the perceptions of high school students about their participation in a college mentoring programme.

“While it is agreed that mentoring is an effective method of preparing students for college, it is not something that is consistently implemented.”

Before the study began, Dr Cruz and his colleagues found there was a lack of understanding about the effectiveness of mentoring programmes. One study found that mentoring students about college increased college applications from 30% to 90%, yet it remains uncommon for students to participate in mentoring schemes. While it is widely agreed that mentoring is a positive and effective method of preparing students for college, it is not something that is consistently implemented. It also lacks a theoretical grounding.

One study found that mentoring increased college applications from 30% to 90%. Joyseulay/

Humanism and storytelling

The content of a mentoring scheme varies depending on the participants involved and the goals of the project. As a result, no universal theory of mentoring has been developed. Dr Cruz, therefore, opted to clearly define his theoretical framework before carrying out this project. He selected Varney’s humanistic theory of mentoring. This is defined as an approach that ‘incorporates care and nurturance’ for the participants.

Such an approach looks at the relationship between the mentor and the protégé as opposed to analysing each in isolation. The relationship should be mutually beneficial, reciprocal, and empathetic. The relationship should be authentic and meaningful. The mentor is best when they are friendly, open, and funny. A humanistic theory of mentoring places more importance on this relationship than on the knowledge and skills imparted.

The key to building such a relationship is storytelling. A ubiquitous human activity stretching back far before recorded history, storytelling is considered a natural and effective way to pass on wisdom while building meaningful bonds between the storyteller and the listener. It is thought that storytelling is so effective because it allows the protégé to live vicariously through the experiences of the mentor. It is therefore a more personal way of transferring information. In the context of Dr Cruz’s study, it is a chance for first-generation college students to be exposed to college life.

Storytelling stretches back far beyond recorded history and is considered an effective way to pass on wisdom. McLittle Stock/

The pilot study

Through conversations with students, teachers, and administrators, Dr Cruz was able to devise a mentoring programme that took both a humanistic and a storytelling approach. After the initial planning stage, the researchers needed to recruit mentors from the University of Arizona. They used PhD students because it was convenient to do so, but also because of their experience in school settings and because these students had more stories to tell. These mentors were then trained, and they began giving 45-minute-long mentoring sessions on a bi-weekly basis.

There were five classes set up, each with 19 students and one or two mentors. The humanistic approach meant that topics discussed were decided by the mentees (the high school students). Mentors would begin with icebreaker questions and then students would raise concerns that were generally emotional or practical in nature. The majority of these students were low-income, Hispanic, high school seniors. Data were collected from students in the form of short interviews.

Mentees were not informed of the humanistic and storytelling approach, so their perceptions they had of reciprocity, mutuality, and empathy could be considered genuine. They were asked four or five questions, including: whether they felt prepared for high school graduation, what they found helpful in preparing them for college, if they had any concerns about their academic future, how the mentoring had been helpful, and if they would be interested in similar mentoring opportunities in the future. Their responses were then recorded and analysed.

Findings and cautions

Overall, the mentees responded positively to humanistic mentoring. Although just 13 students were interviewed, there were nine mentions of mutuality and reciprocity, while storytelling was raised ten times. Rather than viewing PhD students as dry or boring, mentees found them funny and relatable. This made the high school students more likely to consider going to university. College administrators, on the other hand, are often seen as dull, even robotic. It is important to humanise the way in which we pass on information about college admissions to high school students.

Undergraduate students are now used as mentors as they represent a broader range of relatable perspectives. Intellistudies/

Seven of the 13 interviewees highlighted the storytelling of mentors as being both important and positive. Even a story about a mentor physically vomiting with homesickness was well-received; a story like that is relatable and helps high school students realise that their anxiety is normal. Mentees felt that after the mentor programme, they had a stronger sense of what college would be like and knew what to expect.

Storytelling, then, is clearly a powerful way to build a personal relationship between mentor and mentee. However, it is also limited in scope. The mentor is limited by their personal experiences and many had not experienced the kind of severe setbacks that might be valuable for a high school student to hear about. The experience of the mentors chosen for this study may have been too narrow, leading some mentees to view the information as ‘sugar-coated’, and neglecting harsh realities.

“It is clear that a humanistic and storytelling approach can help to convey information in a way that is meaningful and memorable.”

Changing the approach

The overwhelming response of the students to the programme was positive. They felt that they had gained an authentic insight into college life, making them more likely to apply after graduating high school. However, the sample size of the study was very small and there are clearly some limitations to a purely humanistic, storytelling approach. Further tweaks need to be made to optimise the outcomes of the mentoring programme.

Rob Marmion/

Since the completion of the pilot study, the mentoring scheme has changed somewhat. First of all, undergraduate students are now used as mentors rather than PhD students. Though PhD students were more convenient, it was thought that they would inevitably have had largely positive experiences at college, leading to them continuing their educational careers. Undergraduates represent a broader range of perspectives that may be more relatable.

Dr Cruz tried to hire mentors who had had negative experiences so that the aforementioned ‘sugar coating’ was dealt with. These undergraduate mentors visited high schools once a week for an hour to share their college stories and discuss the concerns of high school students. The mentees tend to be from low-income backgrounds and are often first-generation students. Storytelling remains the focal point of the programme, with mentors now submitting written prose stories discussing their time at university.

Despite the small sample size, this study has helped to give a theoretical grounding to the concept of mentoring. It is clear that a humanistic and storytelling approach can help to convey information in a way that is meaningful and memorable. Further studies will be carried out, but it is hoped that applying this theory to underrepresented minorities in college can help motivate and inspire more people to apply.

Why are college stories – even those which might be negative – valuable for prospective students?

While not every situation is applicable to every person, stories do a few things for us. First, they can offer us transferrable information, allowing for vicarious learning to happen. Others’ stories show us where pitfalls and successes are likely to happen. They let us consider how we might act or react in a similar situation, and they make us reflect on ourselves. Moreover, they show us that we are not alone, that others have similar feelings and experiences as ourselves. One of the stories that got cited by many of our high school students was from a mentor who, during his first night away from home at college, literally became homesick and vomited. Such stories remind us that we all experience negativity sometimes and that we are united in that. In that way, others’ experiences, even those that are negative, help us move forward with more confidence.



  • Cruz, J. et al. (2020). Building the mentoring relationship: humanism and the importance of storytelling between mentor and mentee. >Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 28 (2), Pp 104-125. Available at:

Research Objectives

Dr Joshua Cruz assesses a new model for college mentorship, centred around storytelling and humanism


College of Education, Texas Tech University


Josephine Marsh, Maria Goff,
Ni Wang


Joshua Cruz is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Texas Tech University. His primary interests lie in qualitative research and using theory to advance methodologies. Other interests include mentorship, coaching, and improving students’ overall college experience.

Joshua Cruz

3803 47th Street
Lubbock, TX 79413 USA


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