Mentoring and meaning (by Susan Marine)

Recently, a student in my gender in Higher Education summer course enlightened me on the etymology of the word, ‘mentor.’ Mentor was a trusted friend of Odysseus, who came to care for his son Telemachus while Odysseyus went off to his adventures. Athena, goddess of wisdom,  ‘shape shifted’ to become Mentor, and in this form led Telemachus on the quest to discover his father’s fate. We can imagine Mentor guiding Telemachus across the stormy seas and battlefields, coaxing and supporting, but never pushing. We can imagine Mentor, also, respecting the value for Telemachus in forging his own path.

I, like many of you, have benefited immensely from the wise counsel of mentors over the years as I’ve navigated my way through the sometimes rocky waters of higher education. My first real mentor was my graduate assistantship supervisor. She was a good-humored, steadfast repository for both the joys and frustrations I experienced working with fraternities and sororities, and with her guidance, I felt more sure and able to do what needed to be done– even though I was scarcely older than my ‘charges.’ Unflappably, Kimberlie taught me the true meaning of principled, effective leadership, and I saw in her the kind of composed and creative professional I still aspire to be.

Over the years, many other Mentors– both student affairs practitioners and scholars — have taught me different, and enduring lessons, about what it means to model ethical behavior, thinking, and action. Surprisingly, even to me, was that effective mentoring wasn’t always about being older, wiser, or even female, something I had always imagined as I was creating a feminist identity for both my life and my work. Working in the sexual assault awareness field, I was mentored by courageous student survivors, who gave me deeper insight about what was needed to endure the rigors of college after trauma. Supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, I have been remarkably influenced by both gay men and trans people of all genders, who’ve shared with me the ways that their experiences both mirror and sometimes contradict my own as a lesbian. Perhaps most surprising to me has been the value I’ve derived from being mentored by professors, physicians, and others who’ve never opened one page of a student affairs journal or monograph, yet who have an uncanny ability to get to the heart of what ‘we’ do, and infuse even the best-informed interventions with a dose of good old fashioned common sense. Once I was able to see beyond my limiting framework of who a mentor should be, and what s/he/zie would ‘look’ like, I was more able to reap benefit and wisdom from many different sources. And I feel continually energized by the examples of these diverse individuals, who live their lives full of integrity, spirit, and light.

Last night I put the finishing touches on a recommendation letter for a mentor whose impact on my life as my dissertation advisor has been beyond significant. In revisiting an article she wrote about the ways that mentoring might be re-envisioned as a gift, this particular passage resonated deeply with me:

In the case of the professor‐student relationship, the ‘erotic commerce’ that is gift giving reflects the beauty that exists in ideas, and more importantly, in the individual’s pursuit of knowledge. It is not the giver (the professor) himself who is loved but rather the gift— the ideas and their intended aim, knowing…What new ways of thinking or assessing the world I pass onto or give my students will continue beyond our relationship, but its circulation is in the hands of the student. (Ana Martinez Aleman, 2007)

What has been most meaningful about my relationship to Ana and my many other mentors has been the ways I understand our relationship as reciprocal. They give to me, yes. But in return, I take the best of what they have offered me, and commit to infusing my own practice, writing, and activism with it. This is especially true of the women who have mentored me — my obligation to carry forward their investment in me somehow feels more tangible, more essential to the different world that feminists everywhere are trying to create. I cannot simply feel grateful; I must be moved to act with the knowledge and confidence my mentors inspire in me.

What matters to you about mentoring? what makes it reciprocal, valuable, and meaningful? I encourage you to consider how you might thank your mentor, not only with your words, but with your deeds. And that in mentoring others, you might ask the same of them, too.

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