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Mentors

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.

Being Greek 101: Always Finish

“If a task is once begun,

never leave it till it’s done.

Be the labor great or small,

do it well or not at all.”

(Author Unknown)

Yup, that’s it. The most influential thing I’ve ever read in my life was in my  grammar school reader (dated 1973) — signomi, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Arianna Huffington, who I also love but had much less impact on me than this little poem that Papou copied and fixed to every notebook and binder as he tutored me past the most challenging year of my life.

It wasn’t an assigned reading or anything I had to get through, but Papou was on a mission. He was going to teach me English and undo the damage done by untrained staff yelling loudly and slowly in English to my ESL group. I wasn’t technically “ESL” at all, just poli-lingual since the time I started to speak… and demoralized by those mocking my funny pronunciation of American words. Labeled as “different” very early on by teachers and peers — not in the complimentary sense, and always with a sneer, I listened to people asked questions without really wanting an answer. Being only five or six, I found the response confusing, but I could tell by the sneer that accompanied their words that these were not friends. Many asked where I was from and would nudge the person next to them as I tried to answer until one day I decided not to answer… not to speak… and I was placed in a small group of “outliers” every day, reading as I always had, but now reluctant to do the work. What was the point of working to present good work to an instructor who would never see it as good? I was exiled to that little room for the year regardless of how well I performed….

One brisk Friday afternoon when Papou came to pick me up from school, my teacher pulled him aside and said that I was most likely to repeat the second grade. He stood up straight as a rod and looked at her, his face calm. “What must she do to pass?”

The teacher gave her explanation. “And so you see, she will never REALLY be able to read and speak at the same level as the other children her age.”

Papou gave my shoulders a tight squeeze — in tough times, I can still feel that hug and the confidence he had when he addressed my teacher that day. His bushy eyebrows arched in quiet determination and he pronounced every word of his response in his best Oxford English. “She will NOT repeat the grade. May I go in to collect all her books?”

“Certainly, Sir. When would you like to come in.”

“Now, Miss. Right now.”

Though the school was so strict about such things at the time, the principal allowed it. (Years later, as I was graduating, She and my fifth-grade homeroom teacher gave me the best pep talks ever. They were the only people in that place who truly believed in my potential.) That Friday evening my dear Papou sent me off to bed pored over my reader and all my other books from cover to cover.

The next morning, I awoke, freshened up and tossed on my thick fuzzy robe and slippers to go join Papou outside and watch the sun rise, as was our usual habit. He smiled when I came up and planted a kiss on his rugged, prickly cheek and gestured for me to sit by him in the warmth of the sunny terrace. “I want you to read something to me today.”

I smiled up at him. I loved him so dearly that I’d likely do anything he asked of me. “Yes, what is it?”

He reached for the reader, flipped to a bookmarked section and pointed to read it out loud.

Without a moment’s hesitation, I did as he asked, in the clear loud voice of a child who feels confident and at peace with her surroundings. Papou beamed at me, letting that feeling sink in.

We sat there silently for a few moments. “Do you know what it means?”

I nodded. “Finish what you start.”

He nodded. “Yes, but more than that. You must do it WELL. I know you can do anything you focus upon. It’s how we are in this family. This is inside your heart.”

I rested my head on his arm. “It is?”

“YES!!!! OF COURSE!!!! Are you not the daughter of…” he outlined my family tree, starting from my very intelligent, determined and accomplished mother to every known relative in our line dating back to Charlemagne on one side and Alexander the Great on the other. “This is your legacy. It is our family’s legacy.”

I had closed my eyes a moment, listening to him speak, letting the horrid little school week disappear as he spoke. I could see the faces of some of the people he was describing. My people. My legacy. Would it stop here, with me? It was quite a question for a little kid to contemplate on a Saturday morning….

Papou put out his hand for me. I looked at the giant palm, the long fingers, always loving and capable of moving everything forward, then I looked up at him, his warm brown eyes beaming at me, his smile lending me a more strength and warmth than the sun itself. I leaped up and hugged him. “Okay, Papou. I understand.” I hugged him a second longer, wondering, for a moment, where to start this vast quest.

As if sensing my concern, he chuckled, patting me on the back. Setting me back down, he cleared his throat and gave me a very stern look. “We will recite this poem every day with our prayers. You will do all your work with me from now on and we will conquer this. Together.”

I stood up very straight, wide eyed, expectant, and nodded in the determined way of a child. I can’t imagine what I must have looked like, but Grandpa had trouble keeping the serious look on his face. Grinning, he took my hand and walked back inside with me so we could enjoy breakfast with the family.

Ever since that day I was always fairly close to the top of my class, always on the honor rolls and awards/scholarship lists, always in some rigorous new Advance Placement program…. It was, as Papou had put it, my legacy.

Now every hero has his/her flaws, and the “legacy” certainly has not been an easy thing to maintain, but I still recite this poem daily and share it with those in my care as we discuss how I can help them to achieve their goals. It’s the reason I face things head on and never just sit back in despair. It’s the reason I believe in mentoring and in the initiatives of our program, despite minor set backs. The initiative moves ahead, siga siga, and stronger than before, with every person helped and every assistance offered.

This post is dedicated to my wonderful Papou, who was one of a kind, and to our many dedicated Young Professionals, who inspire countless others daily by example.