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Table of Contents
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 96-98

Pods, squads, and crash nights: Alumni mentoring in a Zoom-ing world

1 Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, University of Minnesota, St Paul, MN, USA
2 Development Office, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, St Paul, MN, USA

Date of Submission15-Feb-2021
Date of Acceptance02-Jun-2021
Date of Web Publication01-Feb-2022

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Erin D Malone
Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, 225K VMC, 1365 Gortner Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55108.
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/EHP.EHP_8_21

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We developed an alumni mentoring system to help support veterinary students during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The goal was to connect students to the outside world and provide support to students who were in increasingly isolated circumstances. Students were separated into “pods” for in-person laboratories, and each pod was assigned to two-to-three mentors. This model did not work well and was exchanged for more targeted efforts. Small group mentoring was provided to those students who requested it, and the remaining alumni were recruited to offer evening conversations to anyone interested. This combination seemed to better meet the needs of students and alumni and provided an avenue to access alumni support from across the country. More structure, enhanced mentor support, and attendance requirements may better meet our mentoring goals for a larger group of students.

Keywords: Alumni, COVID-19, mentoring, veterinary

How to cite this article:
Malone ED, Hayden KR. Pods, squads, and crash nights: Alumni mentoring in a Zoom-ing world. Educ Health Prof 2021;4:96-8

How to cite this URL:
Malone ED, Hayden KR. Pods, squads, and crash nights: Alumni mentoring in a Zoom-ing world. Educ Health Prof [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Dec 6];4:96-8. Available from: https://www.ehpjournal.com/text.asp?2021/4/3/96/336976

Mentoring has long been a component of training programs and has been considered a crucial component for academic and healthcare careers.[1],[2],[3] Mentors can help mentees develop professional identities, develop networks, and adjust to the workplace culture.[1] Undergraduate medical students have reported that mentoring enhances their sense of support, program satisfaction, well-being, and professional growth.[4],[5] In veterinary medicine, mentoring programs have been suggested as a strategy to improve student well-being.[6]

The University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine has had a mentoring program for the first- and second-year students since 1999. This has been largely in person with students encouraged to shadow their mentors and chat over coffee, as well as joining together in college-organized events. Being located in the Twin Cities metropolitan area ensured sufficient small animal mentors but often created challenges in locating equine or food animal practitioners.

When it became obvious that coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was going to restrict in-person activities, we repurposed our alumni connections for a broader reach. This article will outline both failures and successes as we reenvision our world.

  Pods and Pod Parents Top

In the summer and early fall of 2020, gatherings in our state were restricted to 20 people or less. Everything that could be taught virtually moved to a Zoom platform, including microscopic anatomy and clinical pathology. With a class size of 105, all in-person teaching needed to be done with one-sixth of the class at a time and repeated six times. To minimize mixing, students were put into “pods” of 18–19 students. Pods were organized around students who were cohabiting or in a “mask-off relationship.” Changing laboratory groups (pods) was not going to be permitted. We worried that students would either be spending too much time with the same small cohort or would be increasingly isolated. This was of the greatest concern with the first- (less likely to live with classmates and only “meeting” a small portion of their class) and second-year students (exacerbating the stresses associated with the second year of the curriculum).

To provide a relief valve, psychological support, and connections to the outside world, we recruited and/or redirected our alumni to serve as pod parents. Alumni were assigned to be mentors in pairs or triplets. First-year pods were assigned our most enthusiastic and energetic mentors. Second-year pods were given our more recent graduates, likely best attuned to the trials and tribulations of that year. Third-year pods had as many mentors as possible from a variety of fields to allow mentoring by track or career, as well as for surviving veterinary school. First- and second-year pods also had third-year student mentors. We avoided using college faculty for two reasons. First, many in that group were already involved in our onboarding program for our first-year students; organizers of the onboarding program wanted the two efforts to stay distinct. Second, we wanted to provide a safe area for venting and voicing frustrations without worry about grade or relationship repercussions.

Pods were asked to arrange monthly meeting times. These meetings needed to be virtual or held outdoors. Each month, pod mentors were sent an update about the current or upcoming challenges to help with discussions.

Unfortunately, the pod parents model had minimal success. Each pod had a few members who wanted to connect but often not enough to overcome the inertia involved with setting up meetings. Others had zoom fatigue by the end of the day and could not get enthusiastic about the online platform. Many mentors were unable to set up meetings via Zoom or had limited experience with the platform. Each side relied on the other to develop a plan for the meetings, resulting in limited activities when they did meet. E-mails went astray and did not reach pod parents and/or the students. Only one or two pods from each year were successful in setting up and holding regular meetings (this did include an outdoor pumpkin carving event). The hurdles resulted in negative attitudes toward more such activities on all sides.

We surveyed the participants and developed an alternative model for spring. We did continue the pods for laboratories and were able to adjust groups somewhat while still keeping cohabitating students together in a pod. This was hugely helpful when travel after the holidays resulted in the majority of one pod needing to miss a laboratory. However, pods were not used for mentoring. Instead, we switched to squads.

  Squads Top

Surveys did show that we had some students who were very happy with and wanted to continue the pod-type mentoring. We also had some mentors who needed to step away and others who wanted a different model. We used the survey data and created squads for the first year (two squads) and the second year (one squad) involving just those students and mentors who were interested. There were not sufficient students in the third year to form a squad (n = 3). To overcome the inertia, we also collected information in advance on preferred meeting days and times and provided that information to the mentors and squads. One of us (E.D.M.) assisted with setting up the Zoom meetings as needed, using recurring links.

  Crash Nights Top

All pods had animal names. First-year pods were marine mammals, third-year pods were African animals, and second-year pods were extinct animals in fall and “Llama” names in spring (e.g., Llama Mia, No Probllama). To continue that theme, we developed Crash (rhino herd) nights. These were sessions held each Wednesday evening and sponsored by an alumnus or a student. Many focused on career options (industry, equine ambulatory), hobbies (knitting, crocheting), or games (online trivia). One of us (K.R.H.) set up the Zoom links, organized student registration through Zoom, and facilitated the start of the meeting. This ensured we had a minimum number of students for each session but were also not oversubscribed. These were attended regularly even if the numbers were smaller. “No shows” were an issue, but reminders to cancel helped minimize the risk of an empty room. We also expanded the invitations to faculty and staff for many of the lighter events (beer tasting and pizza making).

  Lessons Learned Top

  • Virtual mentoring meetings are not easy. We recommend providing as much structure and options as possible. This includes organizing times and setting up the platform. Having someone available to assist with mentoring meetings helps relieve the related anxiety on all sides. We also recommend suggesting icebreakers and activities that are effective online. Predetermined topics also increase meeting frequency and could help the program connect more directly to the curriculum.[4] Based on the guidelines described by Skjevik, et al., we would also recommend an introductory workshop for mentors and creating a platform for mentors to debrief and reflect among themselves.

  • Mentors appreciated knowing the current student challenges and opportunities (e.g., upcoming anatomy examination or suturing laboratory). The students are unlikely to tell them everything but will often respond to prompts and appreciate support in hard times.

  • Different people need different levels of mentoring or distraction. We recommend setting up social groups based on interests. These are not likely to match the other criteria used for splitting up students. Just because they are in the same laboratory group does not mean they have similar interests or needs. A knitting club could be mentored by an alumnus interested in that hobby, whereas a running club or a careers night could better fit a different alumnus.

  • For true mentoring rather than social distraction, match mentees and mentors by cultural or life-related commonalities. We have historically found that mentors and mentees tend to connect more on factors such as minority status, personal challenges, life stage (married, single parent, older student), religion, and other cultural components rather than career path. Additionally, women and underrepresented minorities may be less likely to speak up or voice concerns in larger diverse groups.[7] Discussions may be more fruitful with longitudinal mentoring, smaller groups, and with pairings that consider the challenges faced by the mentee and provide psychological safety.[4] Biographies or meet-and-greets could enable mentees to find the strongest connection.

  • Not all students will anticipate value in virtual mentoring meetings. In mixed groups, those who do not want to participate may override those who do. Students found it hard to speak up and request mentoring meetings when other students were not interested. Letting students self-select groups might minimize the impact of those not interested. Alternatively, a set number of meetings may be required as part of the professional development training. Many students do not know the value a mentor can provide and may find it more useful than anticipated.[8] A systematic review did not identify any negative impacts of mandatory attendance as long as program quality was also reviewed.[4]

  • Mentoring is time-consuming. Virtual mentoring does allow alumni in other parts of the country to contribute and helps to distribute the workload. Many found it worthwhile. Others were frustrated by the level of student engagement. One night a semester is a much easier commitment than the entire semester. Be prepared to let mentors off the hook, as well. Comentoring is advantageous in most programs, and upper level students paired successfully with physician mentors.[4]

  • Check in early and often with both mentors and students: we sent out expectations but found that not everyone was abiding by those. Checking in helped us identify issues and better troubleshoot.

  • Overall, we feel the program provided value to both students and mentors, and it enabled us to connect with mentors outside of our geographic region. While face-to-face meetings are generally preferred, such meetings do require more time and resources on both sides and exclude many high-energy mentors who are not in our area. One-time events via Zoom or other meeting platform provide a means of connection that requires limited preparation, fits more readily into student schedules, and can reach across time zones. With hundreds of alumni, the possibilities are endless.


    The authors would like to express their deep appreciation for the involvement of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine alumni and third-year student mentors who have provided invaluable support and mentoring for our students.

    Author contributions

    Erin D. Malone is the primary author and was responsible for the “pod” design and many of the communications. Kris R. Hayden has been managing the alumni events and mentoring programs. She has continued to facilitate the crash nights each week. This article has been read and approved by both authors, the descriptions above are accurate, and both have contributed significantly to this effort. Both authors believe this article represents honest work.

    Financial support and sponsorship


    Conflicts of interest

    There are no conflicts of interest.

      References Top

    Lewis V, Martina CA, McDermott MP, Trief PM, Goodman SR, Morse GD, et al. A randomized controlled trial of mentoring interventions for underrepresented minorities. Acad Med 2016;91:994-1001.  Back to cited text no. 1
    Sastry A, Tagle A. The right mentor can change your career. Here’s how to find one [Internet]. NPR2020. Available from: https://www.npr.org/2019/10/25/773158390/how-to-find-a-mentor-and-make-it-work. [Last accessed on 2021 Mar 22].  Back to cited text no. 2
    Bell M, Cake M, Mansfield C. Success in career transitions in veterinary practice: Perspectives of employers and their employees. Vet Rec 2019;185:232.  Back to cited text no. 3
    Skjevik EP, Boudreau JD, Ringberg U, Schei E, Stenfors T, Kvernenes M, et al. Group mentorship for undergraduate medical students-a systematic review. Perspect Med Educ 2020;9:272-80.  Back to cited text no. 4
    Frei E, Stamm M, Buddeberg-Fischer B. Mentoring programs for medical students - a review of the PubMed literature 2000–2008. BMC Med Educ 2010;10:32.  Back to cited text no. 5
    Weston JF, Gardner D, Yeung P. Stressors and protective factors among veterinary students in New Zealand. J Vet Med Educ 2017;44: 22-8.  Back to cited text no. 6
    The Google re:Work team. Identify dynamics of effective teams [Internet] [cited 2021 May 4]. Available from: https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/understanding-team-effectiveness/steps/identify-dynamics-of-effective-teams/  Back to cited text no. 7
    Nelson MJ. The unreachable student: Techniques and strategies to increase the influence of academic advising. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal 2013 [Internet]. Available from: https://journals.psu.edu/mentor/article/view/61290/60923. [Last accessed on 2016 Apr 10].  Back to cited text no. 8


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    Pods and Pod Parents
    Crash Nights
    Lessons Learned

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