“We’re all in this together.” How many times has this phrase been uttered during the past several months? Forced inside and driven to find new ways to stay connected, everyone from educators to pastors and spiritual leaders to politicians and CEOs — even car commercials and brand spokespeople — has been reminding communities that they are in this together.

At Valparaiso University, a sense of community has flourished for generations, whether together on campus or spread throughout the world. Many alumni can recall fondly a dedicated professor who went out of their way to engage students and mentor them through undergraduate research, career exploration, or a quiet conversation over a cup of coffee. In this new normal, the importance of maintaining strong relationships and seeking out or serving as a mentor is more important than ever.

Janelle White, M.S., director of Multicultural Programs, serves as the director of Valpo’s SMART Connections Program and knows the value of mentorship. Director White experienced it in her own education as a first-generation student, and she now sees it in the lives of the Valpo students she mentors each year.

Director White knew college would be part of her future from a young age. Life had gotten in the way of her parents’ college opportunities, but they were determined to prevent any obstacles for Director White. Even with her parents’ support, however, Director White still faced hurdles like imposter syndrome in college. “Every student may experience challenges, but if you are coming from a background of being a marginalized identity, it can feel like it is only you who has ever experienced it,” she says. “It is important to think about how and who you build relationships with, finding that faculty or staff member who can best support you in your college career.”

Part of what draws faculty and staff to Valpo is the ability to not just research emerging, cutting-edge topics within their field of expertise, but to spend time getting to know and mentor students. Mentors are an integral part of student success, offering guidance during college and beyond, and building a network of mentors and peers is even more beneficial for first-generation students, a growing population nationwide and at Valpo. “My parents didn’t have the connections that many other students’ parents did. The network I created helped supplement their support in areas they didn’t have expertise in,” Director White says. “How I built friendships and relationships in high school translated into how I built a support system in college with friends and mentors in faculty and staff.”

Director White found spaces in her academic courses and in supplemental leadership roles to grow and challenge herself. By taking advantage of these opportunities, she strengthened her interpersonal skills, and her network of connections grew.

This became fully realized when Director White entered the higher education workforce after graduate school at Illinois State University. She found the majority of people who were her mentors were now her peers, spread across higher education institutions.

Director White knows finding a mentor can be just as important as making friends during college. “As an undergraduate student at Ball State, I found mentors in my residence halls and again later as an RA. Eventually I connected with the multicultural center director of my school,” she says. “I changed majors as an undergrad, and one professor in my new curriculum reached out and helped me become a teaching assistant. That connection allowed me to find the faculty relationships that helped me find my place in my major.”

Now, Director White mentors Valpo students. “It’s something I really enjoy. For some students, I’m their Valpo Mom,” Director White says. “It’s really an endearing title and an honor to be someone whom students know they can count on at the University. There are definitely times when I feel like imposter syndrome is setting in, and I begin to question the impact that I am making in students’ lives. But then I’ll have an interaction with a student that completely shifts my perspective and lets me know that I am bettering the experience of students. Serving as a mentor is something I hold in high regard, and it’s a large responsibility.”

One student with whom Director White has fostered a close relationship is Isis Zaki ’21, a political science major.

“At the start of my junior year, I found myself struggling with my cultural identity,” Isis says. “I had just been hired as a student aid in the Office of Multicultural Programs (OMP) and I was unsure whether I was qualified or knowledgeable enough to serve in that capacity. Over the course of that first semester, Janelle served as a guide for me, encouraging me to explore my identity and how that affects my place in the world. I spent hours in her office laughing, ranting, and crying. I knew I could rely on Janelle to tell me not what I wanted to hear, but what I needed to hear according to what she believed was best for me.”

Isis and Director White met during Isis’ sophomore year on a Spring Break cultural immersion trip to New York City that was sponsored by the Institute of Leadership and Service. Since then, Isis has become more involved with the OMP, and their relationship has grown from supervisor/employee to mentor/mentee — a process Director White describes as an “organic shift.”

“There are definitely more formal mentor processes that exist, but I think our relationship just kind of evolved into one where she feels comfortable trusting me with professional and personal advice,” Director White says. “I do my best to hold her accountable for the decisions she makes and help her to navigate college life as well as provide opportunities to challenge her growth and development. Even when she does not agree with my opinion, I know that she respects it because she knows that it is coming from a place of care. While I may not have the longest-standing mentor relationship with Isis in comparison with others on campus, I know that once she graduates, we will continue to keep in touch. I have developed a Valpo Aunt/Mom role with her and that’s pretty cool.”

Isis agrees, and she says she plans to visit Director White’s office during each Homecoming Weekend as an alumna. “As an upperclassman, there are a handful of faces I see around campus that provide a sense of peace and comfort,” she says. “On top of all the amazing work Janelle does, she very much serves as one of those faces, one of those people who make students feel at home. At the end of the day, I know Janelle is here for me and every other student she serves.”

Visits with Isis and other mentees look a little different these days, as with many social interactions during the time of COVID-19. The one constant is Director White’s total commitment to the success of students past and present.

“The pandemic has shifted how I am able to connect with students. My time physically on campus this semester is limited to three days. In the past, students could come to the Gandhi-King Center at any point during the day, and sometimes evenings, and would know that I would be present,” Director White says. “Now, with virtual meetings, everything is more appointment driven, which impacts the fluidity of relationships.

“One positive has been that because of the normalization of virtual meetings, I have been able to stay connected with our recent alumni. By holding space for them to connect with me and each other, it has given us a small sense of normalcy.”