Volunteer Voices: Qualities of Great Mentors

EWB-USA’s 15,900+ passionate volunteers are the heartbeat of the organization. They give their time, energy and expertise in pursuit of EWB-USA’s vision of a world where every community has the capacity to sustainably meet their basic human needs. Below, EWB-USA volunteer Leah Gaffney reflects on the powerful mentoring role of a faculty advisor to a student chapter.


Group of children chatting with Leah Gaffney (EWB-USA Harvard University Chapter) in Pinalito, Dominican Republic.

As a recent college graduate, I am now acutely aware of how critical mentorship is to the development of a student’s path and goals. I know that EWB-USA can have a special impact, providing intimate mentorship opportunities that go far beyond the classroom and delve into the “real world” teachings that can’t be learned in a book. My mentor and the EWB-USA Harvard University Chapter faculty advisor, Chris Lombardo, showed me what it takes to be a good mentor.

With Chris as a model, I learned that a great EWB-USA mentor:

  • is patient and relatable, inviting students to feel comfortable talking to them.
  • brings extensive experience to the EWB-USA chapter: technical know-how, cross-cultural communication skills, and logistical expertise.
  • has a presence that inspires confidence.
  • empowers student teams, providing strong support while letting students take ownership of their work.
  • is a resource for mentees on a broad spectrum, from project management support to career
  • advisement for students.
  • shows genuine interest in their mentees.
  • is an advocate for EWB-USA student volunteers.

Peer-to-peer mentorship is also critically important. My experience as a student leader of Harvard’s chapter taught me that mentorship doesn’t need to have an official structure, it just has to be genuine. In fact, mentorship seems most successful when it extends beyond a defined mentoring role. Older students become exceptional mentors when they’re willing to provide unconstrained advice and support to younger students. The best way to start is by making yourself available and approachable.


Leah Gaffney (EWB-USA Harvard University Chapter) with Pinalitos Elvis and Luis Mario at the community water tank.

Student leaders should strive to create a welcoming environment in which anyone can become a contributing and valuable member of the team. One way to foster this is by getting chapter members together outside of official EWB-USA functions, providing space, time, and the right environment to build important relationships.

The turnover rate of student-led college organizations can make the rewards of mentorship feel fleeting. I would encourage student chapters to work on building a structure of institutional memory. The lessons, large or small, learned by previous students can provide important direction for the next generation.


About the Author
Leah Gaffney
Leah Gaffney is a Past President of the EWB-USA Harvard University Chapter. She graduated from Harvard College in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Sciences and specialization in Bioengineering. She is currently employed at Edwards Lifesciences in Irvine, CA.