October is Careers in Student Affairs month, a time in which we make efforts to explain our field of work and why we do it to those students who we feel may be interested or have potential. One of the pieces we constantly emphasize is the value of mentors. While there are many explanations of the term “mentor,” a quick Google search returns the result of “an experienced and trusted adviser.”
I realized that sometimes, when we say to “find a mentor,” students treated this like another task or homework assignment. In fact, it’s quite the opposite from some sort of elaborate scavenger hunt. It’s likely that all of us have mentors in our lives already, but perhaps we just haven’t assigned them that label and taken full advantage of them.
While I have served as a mentor for many of our students, I find myself reflecting on my own journey with mentors and how they have helped shape me into the professional and leader that I am today.
Since coming to Michigan Tech in 2009, I have had four different supervisors. (Yes, that’s four supervisors in just over 7 years.) Each of these supervisors has been very different and they have each given me things that I’ve absorbed along my professional journey. During my time working for each, I’ve been asked difficult questions, been challenged more than I’ve probably liked, been rewarded for my accomplishments, and have been given the tools, trust, and encouragement needed to get the job done. Most importantly, they’ve given me opportunities. Opportunities to succeed, opportunities to fail, and opportunities to advance. So while some people cringe at the notion of four supervisors in such a short amount of time, I take pride in this. These folks, my mentors, saw potential, and through the challenges and scaffolding they provided, I was able to find other new and excited ways to move up in my professional journey while also still serving Michigan Tech.
It is often said that Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with advisers who were better educated and more experienced than him in certain matters. This thought may make some of us uncomfortable if you consider the traditional supervisor/employee roles, but it really shouldn’t. While I can’t say it was intentional at the time, I’ve found myself surrounded at times with some extremely challenging folks in some of my past roles. At times, it was frustrating. In fact, I’d walk away from meetings wondering why certain individuals were being so difficult. Why weren’t they thinking like me?! But then, I had a chance for them to evaluate my performance and I also had some of my other supervisors/mentors challenge me. “Try another angle,” they said. And I did. How productive it was to not fight the current anymore, and instead, to have meaningful and healthy dialogue and disagreements. I was often wrong. And I’m comfortable with that. Some of my peers and those who I have supervised have become some of my most meaningful mentors. I trust them, and in turn, they trust me. They taught me to be a better supervisor, and they helped form such a powerful and motivated team that had a true focus on the students.
Students… 18, 19, 20, 21 year olds. How can they be mentors? I’m sure they don’t see themselves as such, but I can say after working in this field for more than 10 years that they have been some of my most impactful mentors. Each meeting with a student is something entirely different, and their words and experiences can often leave you speechless. I often reflect on students I’ve worked with and advised, and I hope that I’ve served them as best as I possibly could have. Many students have come to trust me, and I take pride in having earned that. But why not flip this around? For those students who have chosen to trust me, I’ve found much value in giving them my trust. Even more importantly, I have found value in asking for their feedback and advice. By doing this, not only are we giving students the voice they should have anyways, but we’re also receiving the best possible information and opinion, from the source. This is the meaning of an adviser. This is the meaning of a mentor.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
-Dr. Brene Brown
Learning happens at every moment, and everyone has something to offer. Dr. Brene Brown is credited with the quote, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” In the end, never underestimate the ability to listen and learn from everyone around us, no matter who they are. By being vulnerable and truly listening and trusting, you may just find not only some great advice, but also a significant mentor.