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From mentor to sponsor: The secret to the higher ed inside track


Mentors can impart the hard-earned lessons and advice that higher education professionals need to succeed, but sponsors can truly accelerate a career—so learning how to find, and take advantage of, education sponsorship opportunities can have a big impact on your future. After all, advice is great, but who do you turn to when you need someone who trusts you so much that they will recommend you for a promotion? That’s where a sponsor comes in.

You may be wondering how to get an education sponsorship. Let’s walk through each phase of the process to learn how to find and build a relationship with a sponsor in your professional life.

Benefits of sponsorship over mentorship​

The difference between a mentor and a sponsor is the difference between an advisor and an advocate. More than offering advice to guide you through your career, a sponsor will actively pull you into their professional network and shout your name from the rooftops. A mentor can help you choose between Door no. 1 and Door no. 2. A sponsor will give you the crowbar and help you wrench the right door open.

Finding a sponsor

So how do you find someone who will do all this for you? It’s obviously a lot to ask. Your sponsor has to believe in you enough to, on some level, put their reputation on the line for you. Such a relationship often develops naturally over time. You may already even have someone who would be willing to advocate for you.

Sometimes you can win over a sponsor through a close working relationship. For Jason Foureman, an adjunct professor and bass instructor in the University of North Carolina’s music department, this relationship appeared before he even hit campus.


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Ask yourself who has boosted your own career, what opportunities you need and who can connect you to those opportunities.

Early in his career, Foureman toured with Harry Pickens, a jazz pianist who collaborated with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie. Pickens saw potential in Foureman, and while playing a gig in Louisville, Ky., Pickens introduced Foureman to the head of the jazz program at the University of Louisville, leading to a job offer the following year and a lifelong friendship and mentorship.

But you can be more deliberate about the process, too. Jennifer Anne de Vries, a Senior Academic Fellow for Organisational Development with the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences and the Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health at The University of Melbourne (Australia), says that you should determine your higher education sponsorship opportunities by conducting what she calls a personal sponsorship scan.

In a report titled, “Sponsorship: Creating Career Opportunities for Women in Higher Education,” de Vries suggests you do this by asking yourself who has boosted your own career, what opportunities you need and who can connect you to those opportunities. These are people you may want to build a relationship with that could lead to future sponsorship.

Sparking the sponsorship

Once you’ve identified your potential sponsors, build a personal relationship with them. Find ways to connect, such as inviting them to coffee to talk about their own path to success.

In her book “(Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor,” Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Ph.D., writes that you should suggest collaborating on a project important to your desired sponsor or offer to contribute in some other concrete way. Hewlett is the former director of the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

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Jim Alberghini, associate director of conferences and events at Dartmouth College, has had many sponsors who pushed his career forward and now prides himself on paying that forward to the interns and employees he works with. He says passion, hard work, and stellar performance will attract the right people and help spark the relationship for you.

“I’ve always believed pretty strongly that you should be pursuing things you’re passionate about. If you’re doing something that matters to you, it shows,” he says. “Internally, you’re going to be more engaged and the people around you will get a sense that you’re trying and you’re worth investing energy and time into.”

Nurturing the relationship

Once you’ve gained a sponsor, the relationship will develop through mutual support, Hewlett writes. Protégés deliver for their sponsors, coming through with standout work and staunch loyalty. In return, the sponsor should put their protégé’s career at the university on a fast track.


Foureman suggests keeping up with your sponsors as you would friends. Make time for them, keep in touch, and keep up with major life events. Honor and recognize those transitions, he says, congratulating or commiserating depending on the situation. Feel free to take the initiative in scheduling time to meet, regardless of whether these plans fall through. The important thing is staying on their radar.

If you make it a priority to cultivate these relationships, you’ll find many mentors and sponsors and relationships in between as your career progresses. Foureman and Alberghini had many people who helped them along the way to career success. These can be vital relationships for a certain time in your life, or they could last a lifetime. They can start as one and evolve into the other. The important thing, Foureman says, is to live your life and career as if you don’t have one.

“Do something that shows you’re doing something rather than waiting for something to come along, he says. “You can’t go out looking for a mentor. If you’re doing the right thing, typically it’ll happen.”

Source List Hewlett, S. A. (2013). Forget a mentor, find a sponsor the new way to fast-track your career. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
De Vries, Jennifer. (2018). SPONSORSHIP: Creating Career Opportunities for Women in Higher Education. 10.13140/RG.2.2.15515.31528.
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