Mentors Beyond the Middle

Sara Ousby, Ed.D

September 26, 2017

I have been lucky to have some excellent mentors in the student affairs field. These are individuals I reach out to when I am considering my next career step, come across an issue I am having difficulty addressing, or need to vent (we all have those days!).

In recent years, however, I have found it harder to maintain contact with some of these important mentors, as I have moved and had changes in my personal life. In addition, as I have advanced into mid-level management and started thinking about stepping into a senior level position, I am now at a point where I share similar titles and responsibilities with those I have typically gone to for how to navigate the next stage of my career.

These mentors are able to give me sage advice on how to navigate my current role. However, the more I learn about moving into a senior-level role, the more I realize it is a completely different world than the one I currently in. I need a mentor who has experience working at the senior-level, and who can provide me the much-needed mentorship to make that career move.

Overall, I feel like I haven’t done a great job cultivating mentor relationships and that my need for such a relationship is growing. But I feel at a loss for how to identify and connect with mentors who can serve in this capacity. As many of us often experience, my intentionality in connecting with mentors ebbs and flows. On one hand, I believe that mentorship occurs naturally. On the other, I am pragmatic and want to plan my next steps for my career, and I know that a relationship like this won’t just fall into my lap.

What I want is to have a woman mentor in a senior student affairs role, so she will likely be someone with high demands on her time. As I consider these factors, I worry that I should have cultivated relationships earlier. I don't want a potential mentor to feel I am seeking them out solely for my own advancement. There is a pressure about what a mentor relationship should look like and how it should be developed that doesn’t always mirror the realities of our current situation or what we are hoping for.

As I have explored the need for a new mentor appropriate for my future career goals over the past several months, I have come to a few conclusions that are helping guide me as I move forward

1. There is no right or wrong way to start a mentor relationship
In reading research on mentorship, I’ve found that some authors advocate for taking initiative in building relationships with mentors, while others say that if you have to ask for someone to mentor you, then it isn’t true mentorship. My personal opinion is that you have every right to drive your mentor relationships. In the best case scenario, they happen naturally. But we all know that might not be your situation. Not everyone has a direct supervisor or senior leader at his or her own institution that can serve as a mentor, and some professionals want a mentor outside of their current institution. Overall, you have to decide the right format for your mentor relationship. Don’t be afraid to make intentional steps to establish a relationship. Sign up for opportunities through professional associations, reach out to professionals who you respect and want to develop a relationship with.

2. It is okay to be selective
If you are looking for a new mentor, make a list of ideal traits. Do you want to share certain social identities? Do you want a mentor in a certain role? You might not end up developing a relationship with a mentor that meets all of your desires, but it will give you an idea of what is important to you. It can also be a key factor in figuring out where to start looking. I currently have my list of priorities for a mentor and a short list of men and women who I have identified as potential mentors. I am working on developing these relationships intentionally.

3. Determine how mentoring can be mutually beneficial
Most professionals are searching for ways to develop. If a preferred mentor’s time is limited, try to identify ways your relationship can be mutually beneficial. For example, what projects can you work on with your mentor that will benefit them as well? Consider a mentor who may share research or specialty interests and how you may be able to contribute to their creative activity.

4. Find someone to mentor
It’s never too early to mentor another professional. As I have been considering the need for mentors in my life, I realize the importance in mentoring others in the field. And hopefully, those I am mentoring will mentor someone as well. Mentorship is key to developing well-prepared and competent professionals. We can all contribute to more effective student affairs practice through mentoring.

A good mentor contributes to your personal and professional growth. They invest in you. If career advancement is one of your goals, a mentor may open more doors for advancement than your experience, education or luck alone. If you’re searching for a mentor, take the time to think critically about what you want to accomplish, and how a relationship with a mentor will contribute to those goals.

Sara is the Director of the Rosenberg Center for Student Involvement at the University of Baltimore.

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