Lessons in Mentorship: Students and Academic Professionals
It’s easy to get caught up in the frantic pace of the semester, but it’s important to remember that our usual advice can be totally fresh for students. In my role as Assistant Director of Tutoring Services, I see many students and find that repeated visits allow for the meaningful work of mentorship. Whether a professor or a tutor, mentoring students is rewarding, and we wield a number of tools, knowledge, and skills to help in that task.
Sometimes, it’s not immediately obvious how we can mentor a student who is seeking help. For me, one particular student from last semester comes to mind. The student was analyzing Linda Hogan’s poem “Heritage,” in which the poet contemplates her biracial heritage as both a Native American and white woman. I’m going to confess I’ve never considered poetry explication a personal strong suit, nor am I that conversant in literature by and about Native Americans, but that doesn’t mean I had nothing to offer. I had a basic knowledge of American history and white settlers’ (and, later, white Americans’) treatment of indigenous peoples, so I was able to fill in some knowledge gaps for the student. Besides that, I had the tools of the trade that help us pick apart and analyze literature. The student returned several times to work on this and similar essays. By the end of the course, he had learned more about Native American culture, American history, how to critically analyze works of literature, and how to better access available academic resources (like seeking help at the Writing Center or researching with UNG librarians). That’s a lot of ground to cover in just a few hours of contact. Our relationship had grown beyond the realm of tutor-tutee and into that of mentor-mentee. The student even used those exact words in thanking me for being such a mentor to him.
If you check out the responses to a 2009 survey by Durham University, you’ll find mentees reporting positively on the exact issues with which I assisted this particular student. I had helped him navigate enough nooks and crannies of academia that he came to view me as a mentor. And, like that same survey suggests, the benefits to me were tremendous, as well. I didn’t have all the knowledge going in, but I had enough to get us heading in the right direction. I had the pleasure of learning right alongside the student–both about his topic and his own cultural experiences. That kind of work is gratifying, and those deeper connections with students keep us better engaged with their concerns and how we can best contribute to their educational growth and their development as leaders for a diverse and global society.
To best serve our students, I think that as folks in academia, we all need to very consciously embrace our roles as mentors as we consider how our knowledge–of content, of the institution, of academia’s idiosyncrasies, of professionalism–can help students achieve their goals in higher education and beyond. With our support, guidance, and critique, students learn to try new strategies and experiment with ways to improve themselves and their work. I look forward to seeing those students return semester after semester, and for me at least, there’s a deep satisfaction in the culmination of all that mentorship: helping students with their applications to the next step in their journey.