Why Seek out a Mentor?

This weekend someone told me that mentoring should come from our families, that we are reflections of our families. While that’s true to some extent, it’s equally true that we occasionally need the advisement of professionals in our respected fields. After all, if we’re going to make great strides in society and develop a sense of what society needs in the future, it helps to make connections and draw from our global professional parea.

This led me to dig up an older post I’d stored in drafts back in April 2013, when we were first getting to launch the Philo4Thought HPM initiative. Sharing with you now in the hopes of inspiring our dear readers to work with those in need of guidance. Enjoy!

The Subtle Ethos, Logos, Pathos of Lasting Mentoring Experiences

I had the good fortune to start off with the best mentors — my grandparents and my mom. No matter what was going on in the outside world, no matter what struggles we faced, they always had a word of encouragement, a world of honest advice and expertise on how to handle any number of situations, and the patience to explain things to me through personal anecdotes. There was no internet yet; back then homework and research involved sitting out on the veranda with my Papou and chat with a bunch of open books sprawled out on a little table. In the winter months we’d sit in the comfort of the kitchen, where Yiayia was working magic over steaming pots of food — to be enjoyed after all my homework was done, of course.

Every morning Mom would offer a quote for the day before she hugged me and sent me off on the long walk to school with Papou. “Listen with your eyes and your ears!” she’d say, or “It’s alright to be nervous or afraid, but never shake in your head or your hands. Be strong.” With that, she’d kiss me on the forehead and send me off to face the big wide world. Though some might shrug, her words made me feel stronger, like I could understand and accomplish anything as long as I applied myself.

The point was reinforced by Papou, who would recite an Aesop’s Fable and ask me what the moral was as we walked along the path to school. On the way home every afternoon, he’d stop and show me something interesting along the path. “Look, see that young tree? It has a tutor. The tutor helps the young tree grow strong.” It was one of many little messages that still resonate for me. Everyone needs moral and professional support, and having a good mentor is so important.

Positive mentoring, story telling, and humble, patient advisement from great people was just the norm around the house. It’s the style I’ve adapted in my own efforts to mentor students of all academic backgrounds and research interests. 

Mentoring Beyond the Borders of Home

Being a First-Generation American, I did have to be brave in reaching out to others to observe and determine the normative process of academic and professional achievement. Leaving the safe little nest of home to find my own path I was hit by the stark realization that good and consistent mentors are actually not very common. While I was fortunate enough to be armed with the strength of good home mentoring, not everyone is that fortunate. People shrug it off and say, “Maybe you’re just smart.” but I see very smart young people daily who don’t see their own potential and need a good mentor to help nudge them in the right direction. This is particularly important for young people whose parents may not be familiar with the standards of academic and professional success in the US — or in their child’s specific area of interest.

Because of several social and academic gaps that exist throughout our educational system, young people tend to become desensitized to the realization that mentoring is a necessary part of personal and professional growth. With the increasing emphasis on state exams, young people learn to push towards “cookie cutter” milestones without considering major interests till they are ready to apply to specialized programs in high school and college. 

One of the things I hear so often from many college-level students is that they “don’t really have an advisor” beyond the person who signs off on their term schedules. Another thing I hear is that many students are only interested in the “bottom line” thinking — what core classes needed to graduate will fit into their schedule, how many credits they need to finish, etc. The philosophical connectivity between the courses, the desire to pursue a rich learning experience and build a network… is a little lost as they sit in front of computers to plug in random codes that will lead to matriculation but not substantial learning….

Professional counseling is often available on campuses but not adequately promoted. With no incentive set before them to seek out additional coaching or mentoring, students don’t necessarily take the time and effort to see an on-campus career counselor. They’re too busy trying to get by, perhaps juggling other stressful obligations like work, family, etc. on their own. The resources are all there, the access is readily available, but there’s some disconnect between the counseling infrastructure and student incentive.

The result? Graduates with poorly organized resumes, inadequate writing skills, informal looking profiles, half-baked ePortfolios, and a world of stress ahead of them… not to mention the college loans many have to look forward to upon graduation.

Building a Professional Parea

The first step? Identifying the problems and concerns of today’s young professional to see where to begin. Listen to what the students want, don’t just hand them a batch of pamphlets. Get the teachers to speak to their best students and recruit them to the department — a mentoring tactic that has always worked for me. Create a safe, confidential space, offering positive, personalized professional advisory and networking discussions and services.

NETWORKS: There are loads of professional networks available today, in every discipline, but students need to be directed to the more valid and applicable mentoring opportunities. Students pay an exorbitant amount of tuition to be shoved out of an advisor’s door after a few minutes, still flustered and with a longer “to do” list than they had when they came in for advisement….

MENTORS: Let me coin the phrase “Those who can do mentor.” Career centers should know where to direct students for answers to specific professional questions beyond the scope of their areas of expertise, to mentors who have a good grasp of their professional community and available opportunities for success. Yes, a little conceptual hand-holding is usually required of a good mentor in early days, but the young professional should also be prepared for an equal portion of that “sink or float” mentality that is ultimately needed to guarantee that he/she will be able to succeed on their own.

Older is not necessarily better — in addition to seasoned mentors many students and young professionals have expressed a preference for peer mentors who have faced the shift towards the interdisciplinary needs of today’s society.

TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIAL MEDIA: Online networking and communication is rapidly expanding. Mentors have to be willing to shake the led out and use modern resources to work with their interns and mentees. (I say this with all due respect to my own beloved undergraduate mentors, who used to direct me to the card catalogue, the Ann Arbor microfiche collections, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the membership pages for my professional associations (Golden Key, MLA, APA, etc.) At the time, the internet was just starting up and I landed a job constructing one university’s first website. There was a great deal of resistance from faculty and other members of the community as the internet expanded to include online instruction and advisement. Many didn’t approve of this “new direction” and yet we — instructors and advisers– had to move ahead with the times. It was part of our responsibility to students and graduates who had to be ready to access and use all the new resources available to the mainstream professionals.

Ironically, I feel that my experience as a first-genner helped me accept this “new world” more readily than others did. It was a deja vue of my experience of Sequential Math I back in high school (i.e., what Yiayia called “the new math” that was beyond the scope of her training). I remember that point of departure, when I had to let go of my strongest tutors/mentors and learn on my own….

Scary? Yup. Impossible? Not on your life. If you have strong roots and a solid sense of persistence you can accomplish anything.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is really that we should be willing to reach out to our local colleges and philanthropic groups to offer internships and mentoring opportunities to those in need. Career Centers can only take a student so far without the support of Alumni and other philanthropic individuals who are willing to pay forward and share their gifts and experience with today’s youth.