The Power of Mentorship: 3 IIDA Student Members Share Their Experiences

Research shows that mentoring can help ensure the academic and professional success of students and protégés. Mentorship is especially crucial now as employers recognize the need to engage and retain millennials. Every year, IIDA pairs thousands of students and mentors for a day of job shadowing through the annual IIDA Student Mentoring Program. Networking opportunities and career insights are expected, but bridging the gap between generations has become an added and significant benefit of the program. After last year’s Student Mentoring Program, we caught up with three students to get their take on how the program impacted them and what lessons they’ll be taking as they embark on their professional design careers.

Mentoring Motivated Me to Build My Professional Network

Student: Krista Neerdaels, interior architecture student, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Mentor: Jamie Carley, Flad Architects, Madison, Wisconsin

There were three of us who attended the mentoring day together. [Our mentor Jamie] spent time showing us the types of projects she was working on, walked us through the programs they use, and gave us insight on what a typical day is like for her.  We then went out for lunch, and afterwards she set up a few meetings with people who work in different departments at Flad. Later, we discussed specifics on how to move into the professional world—advice on resumes, interview etiquette, and portfolios.

An important aspect about Flad that I appreciated was that the designers, architects, and engineers all work in the same space, so all departments are involved when a project begins. I believe it is very important to have integration of design and architecture as soon as possible for the benefit of the final product. The mentorship experience also motivated me to continue building my professional network to gain even more confidence about my future. It was an inspiring day that encouraged me to find a company that is the perfect fit for me.

Mentoring Intensified My Passion for Design

Student: Heba Toulan Pennington, interior design student, Houston Community College

Mentor: Catrina Wyrick, Abel Design Group, Houston, Texas

I signed up for the [Student Mentoring Program] to gather a full understanding of how interior design/architecture functions on a daily basis. My mentor and I spent time discussing what a typical work day is. Then, we went to a construction site to see how the contractor works with the architect. My favorite part of the day was the session where we covered building codes in elevations and plans.

The program intensified my passion for design. I came away inspired and intrigued by the process of designing.

Mentoring Solidified My Career Path as a Designer

Student: Jonathan Butler-Knutson, interior design student, University of Minnesota

Mentor: Maren Idso, NELSON Upper Midwest, Minneapolis, Minnesota

My favorite part of the [Student Mentoring Program] was being able to see what it is like to visit a site and let the space help inform design solutions. After receiving a quick overview of her project work, Maren and I, along with her coworker Matt, walked to Gaviidae, a five-story geometric art deco style structure that is part of the Minneapolis downtown skyways system. Upon arrival, we noted that there was very little foot traffic on the first floor. The second floor, bustling with traffic, drew its occupants from the skyway system to the retail and restaurants that are present in the space. There was a complete lack of business presence on the third and fourth floor, and only about 25 percent occupancy on the fifth floor.

After recognizing some of the issues that had been amplifying the issue of low tenant occupancy, the three of us sat down and worked through a plan of a potential tenant space. The best part of the experience was how willing Maren was to let me assist her. After arriving back at the office, she let me sit down and rework the plan in Revit based on my suggestions.

My mentorship experience solidified my belief that design is the field for me and sparked excitement about the work I will get to do.


The 2017 IIDA Student Mentoring Program is currently underway. If you are a student participating in this year’s program, apply for the Wilsonart Essay Competition for a chance to $1,000 and a trip to Chicago during NeoCon 2017. Search #IIDAsmp on Facebook and Instagram to see the Student Mentoring Program in action. 

How To Be a Better Mentee

Every year, IIDA pairs two students with an interior designer for a one-day crash course on a day in the life of a designer. Student Mentoring Week, one of IIDA’s most dynamic program offerings, is the catalyst for many IIDA student members who wish to begin a mentoring relationship with a professional interior designer. By the time this column is published, nearly 500 IIDA student members will have made meaningful connections with the best in the interior design industry. The goal is for the students and their mentors to continue buildings connections like these after the
day is over.

There is no doubt that a strong mentoring relationship can play a huge role in a student’s academic and professional success. Numerous studies support the positive effects of mentoring relationships. Many companies like Boeing and Deloitte implement professional mentoring programs to develop and retain younger employees. But if you think mentoring is simply weekly Starbucks dates with a senior-level professional or a quick way to score professional success—including a job—think again.

The reality is that mentoring relationships require a serious investment of time, patience, and effort for both the mentor and mentee. While a mentor’s role is to guide, a mentee’s role holds just as much weight, if not more. Ultimately, you—the mentee—have primary say in your mentoring relationship. You initiate the mentoring relationship, you are responsible for nurturing it, and you can end it. Here are some tips to help you in your quest to find a mentor and be the mentee that mentors want.

Define the Relationship
Mentorship is a word that conjures many notions and expectations.

Some students come into a mentoring relationship expecting their mentor to offer them a job or provide them lifelong coaching without first determining if the partnership is a good one. Have a strong definition of what mentorship means to you and use that when seeking teachers, designers, peers, and work colleagues you admire and pursue. If you’re having trouble identifying what you want from your relationship, ask yourself:

  • Do I want to emulate my mentor’s career or am I looking for someone who will act like a trusted friend?
  • Do I want someone who will help me search for educational and life opportunities in addition to career opportunities?
  • How long do I want my mentor in my life? Do I want someone who knows me enough to write a sufficient letter of reference or do I want someone who will be a guiding figure throughout my entire career?

Be proactive in your search for a mentor, considering goals for the relationship and how long it will last. Understand why you need mentorship and how it can help you succeed professionally.

Gain Agreement
Once you have your mentorship goals in mind, communicate them clearly to your potential mentor and ask what expectations the mentor has. Discuss and decide upon the relationship you want to build together in advance. The most successful mentoring relationships are those founded on clear goals and ground rules. Be upfront—your mentor will thank you.

Seek Multiple Mentors
Traditionally, mentoring relationships are characterized by a two-person model with a senior person discussing a student’s goals, needs, weaknesses, and accomplishments. In a perfect world, one person is enough to help you tackle all your concerns. But can you really have just one mentor? You will most likely need multiple mentors of various ages, skills, and traits to guide you with each of your needs.

Research on mentoring relationships and programs shows that mentoring is most effective when the mentee has a diverse constellation of mentors, from a traditional primary mentor to peer and short-term ones as well. Do you aspire to be an interior designer with your own firm? Consider reaching out to both an interior designer and a business owner. Each person brings different perspectives and wisdom. Take your search further—explore outside your boundaries and tap into the networks of your friends and colleagues.

Do Your Homework and Invest
Prepare for each meeting with your mentor as if it’s a task for your job. Dress professionally. Show up on time with a notebook and pen, ready to listen and take notes. Research your mentor’s interests, ask questions, and talk about the why behind the answers. Share your portfolio.

Mentoring is a two-way street. Go beyond “checking in” and give your mentor opportunities to offer insight and advice. As you get to know your mentor, think of ways you can add value to the relationship. Bring up a recent news story or study that you think would be of interest or provide your mentor a new networking connection.

Be Open
Your mentor will challenge you. Giving you honest feedback is his or her job. Come into the relationship appreciating that there is a chance you will reexamine your goals and consider new ideas. While setting clear goals and objectives at the beginning of the relationship is crucial, also realize that these goals and objectives may change as the relationship progresses.

Be Honest
Do you get along with your mentor? If the fit doesn’t feel right, bow out. Mentoring should be established as no-fault relationship where either you or your mentor can end it for good reason at any time without risk of harm to your respective careers.

When done right, mentoring is a powerful tool that can change careers and lives. So be fearless in what you want and humble when someone agrees to be your mentor. You’ll be surprised by how much people want to help you if you just ask for it.


This post was originally published in Interiors & Sources.