Mentee to Mentor

Sara Kaiser, NASPA IV-W North Dakota Membership Coordinator

May 30, 2017

It’s my favorite time of year! We’ve made it through a wild and busy spring, graduates are relieved to have finished their final exams, and the excitement of new students arriving on campus for summer orientation re-energizes our work. Early summer is also the time I hope I’ve done enough to provide the graduate students in our office a strong foundation of mentorship, professionalism, and knowledge of how to be a good colleague and to take those skills and pass the baton to serve as a mentor to the undergraduates and graduates they will now be working with as professional staff members.

I have been so fortunate to have wonderful mentors in all stages of my career in student affairs. Some mentors have been cheerleaders to push me through the rigors of a graduate program while others have been a sounding board when I needed to bounce an idea off of someone with more experience or a differing viewpoint. Some mentors were placed in my life purposefully as supervisors or faculty members. Other mentee/mentor relationships developed more organically. Regardless of how the mentor relationship developed, each has played an important role in my development as a professional in student affairs. So how do I know I’ve done enough to pass on graduate students into the tilt-a-whirl of life as a full-time employee in student affairs?

First, I hope I have engrained some of the best advice I’ve ever received from a former mentor into the lives of students I work with—be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Part of the work we do in student affairs is learning something new every day, from a variety of individuals. I hope our new graduates who are entering the field of student affairs have the confidence to be uncomfortable in a new situation, to ask questions when appropriate, and most of all, listen. Listen to those around you as listening to the stories and experiences of those around you can often be the most profound way to gain understanding.

Second, as a new professional, you don’t have all of the answers, maybe you don’t have any answers. But as a mentor you will help facilitate the development of new ideas on how to problem solve rather than just hand an answer to a student. It’s okay to let students, a project, or an idea fail. Some of the best learning can come from failure. For new mentors failure can be a hard pill to swallow. But a good mentor can help break down a situation and determine what can be done differently to ensure a different outcome.

Finally, the question I most often hear graduate students ask is about the path they should take to embark on their career in student affairs. What first job is the ‘right’ job? What college or university will be the best fit for their first full-time role in student affairs? Sometimes the hardest part of being a mentor is not providing the answer—because there often isn’t an answer. There is no yellow brick road…unless you are Dorothy and Toto is dutifully following you. Your path is your path. Your career choices are yours. Your family situation is unique to you. And that’s okay! It’s more than okay! That’s life! As a mentor, I want students to feel satisfied and valued in their work, and I hope they have the confidence to pass along their wisdom to the next group of students!

Maintaining relationships with former students is one of the most enjoyable aspects of working in higher education. Re-connecting with former students at a NASPA conference 1, 5, or 10 years after they graduated and learning about their career, family, and livelihood keeps my heart full. I hope former mentees experience the same satisfaction when it’s their turn to watch their former students blossom into outstanding student affairs professionals.

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