I am a big proponent of mentorship, actively participating in my own development and giving back to my chosen profession. There are many reasons to find a mentor but you first have to decide if you want one.
Answer this question for yourself:
Do I need a mentor? I’m sure that you could navigate the terrain on your own, but as the brilliant person that you are, why would you? You’re in a profession that’s purpose is to holistically develop others, including you. Although it hasn’t been my experience, you can be successful without finding a mentor, but I, with 13 years of professional experience, and having navigated 5 distinct institutions, would not recommend it. There are many amazing, brilliant, authentic, and altruistic individuals in this field. Find a mentor and reach out to them! Elevate your success and ask someone to mentor you.
Now that you’ve answered and have decided that you need a mentor
Google the word “leadership” and you’ll receive over 3 million unique definitions. Searching the term “mentorship” will produce just as many results. While mentoring is unique and individualized, I’d like to share some personal insights gained through being a mentor and mentee. I’ve outlined my words of wisdom into four pockets: Defining, Finding, Selecting, and Building.
A mentor can be anyone you trust and from whom you can seek council. One of the biggest misconceptions is that your mentor needs to be from the field of higher education. This is untrue. Mentors can be siblings, friends, family members, colleagues, faculty, and anyone who you truly believe and wants to invest in you and see you prosper. Mentors are individuals who genuinely want the best for you. There isn’t a Likert scale or a perfect mentor/mentee assessment tool to perfectly pair you up, so you have to jump in, with two feet, to get started. As the mentee, you need to decide who you want as a mentor and what you want from them. Sometimes you may want a mentor to share in your accomplishments, to say “GREAT JOB” and lift your spirits. Other times you may want a mentor to tell you that you handled a situation inappropriately and that your perspective has some gaps. In addition, mentors can play various roles in your professional development to help guide us through our passions and determine how to best invest our time.
Personally, I have many mentors within and outside the field of higher education. For me, diversity isn’t just “lip service” or something I encourage my students to do. Diversity is something I implore and believe is crucial to my development as a person and as a professional. I remain curious in all aspects of my life and intentionally surround myself with people of varying beliefs, education, upbringing, specialties, and philosophies. From one professional to another, I encourage you to surround yourself with people who do not see the world and the field of higher education the same way that you do. Spend time with people who disagree and challenge your way of thinking. These individuals have a special role in your development as they will question and challenge your default responses from your filtered, individualized lens.
Keep in mind that your supervisor does not have to be your mentor! Don’t put this expectation on your supervisor. Your supervisor may want to become your mentor, but please, know they may not. If you happen to come across a supervisor who becomes your mentor, make sure to find a mentor outside of your department or field. At some point in time, your philosophical views may differ from those of your supervisor and you’ll need a neutral perspective to assist as you address concerns and strategically move forward. Your supervisor may indirectly mentor you as they will hopefully spend time getting to know you and have a decent understanding of your future aspirations. However, this isn’t always the case. Your supervisor may have others they supervise or may take a step back from mentorship, as they need to prioritize other responsibilities (e.g. research, publication, reorganization, strategic planning).
Find a mentor who enjoys listening, because getting to know you and understanding what drives you is crucial! Mentors/mentees are special and unique! Be authentic about everything! Be honest about who you are and your aspirations. It’s equally imperative to allow your mentor to speak. After you’ve shared, get ready to listen. There’s a time in the conversation during which you’ll need to hush up and absorb. Don’t search and select a mentor only to then talk the entire time you’re together. The mentor/mentee relationship is “give and take” and, at some point, you the mentee will need to listen. It has to be a conversation. Remember, you selected a mentor and want to learn. An excellent mentor will listen to you and share advice, perspectives, and options to hep work through your concerns. A mentor will not and should not make decisions for you! A mentor provides necessary tools, ideas, perspective, and information to assist you in making your own decisions. “Adulting” is hard, but this will be empowering and you’ll be better for it! This is the point of mentoring and the importance of finding an excellent mentor.
Just as important as selecting a mentor is building the relationship with them. This relationship needs to be organic! However, there are formalized mentor/mentee relationships that exist. There are opportunities where you are assigned to an individual who meets the criteria you indicated during the application process. Personally, I have gained a great deal by being formally mentored through NASPA’s Aspiring Vice Presidents Alice Manicur, Women in Higher Education Candid Conversations and Escaleras for Latinx Professionals. Although these relationships were formalized, and not necessarily organic, there was a level of interest and support as these individuals applied to be mentors and were chosen to share their wisdom. Like any relationship, formal or informal, they must be cultivated and developed. If you want your mentor to remain your mentor, then you need to contact them regularly, value them, and build the relationship. Mentors need to know what you want, so tell them. Lastly, it’s important to note that mentors do not need to serve as mentors for the rest of their lifetime. Sometimes mentors assist during a specific time of your life, such as the beginning of a new job or for a full season of your life as you navigate competing demands such as going back to school and starting a family. You need to decide the type of mentorship that you want and build it.
Mentorship is a privilege and I encourage you to seek out a mentor in our profession. Take the time to define what mentorship looks like for you. Find a mentor. Cultivate that relationship. Lastly, become a mentor and nurture someone else. Good luck on your search and continue to be open to all the possibilities of this beautiful and impactful profession.