Demystifying Mentorship by Melissa Morgan and Christina Gilmore

We have a unique kind of relationship.  We started off being thrown together on “accident” during Christina’s first year as a residence life grad and Mel’s last year (for now) as a residence life professional.  What developed was a deep professional bond through supervision that shifted to friendship and mentorship throughout that year working together and the following years.  We wanted to share our story and some things that we’ve learned about mentorship together as we move through this field, but as we sat down to write, it became clear that we didn’t know anything about formal mentorship!  No one else came to their mentor/mentee relationships like we did, so what could we have to contribute to this conversation?

It turns out, through our conversations in creating this blog post; we have a few things to share outside of the “mentorship” box that may help you find a few of your own successful mentoring relationships.  We think that the best part of having a mentor or mentee is that this person helps you to be a better version of yourself.  S/he can help you avoid common obstacles, as Mel did for Christina during her first round of conferences.  S/he can help you see yourself accurately in a new role, as Christina did for Mel when she transitioned into her Assistant Dean position.  So, what follows are some things we’ve compiled to share with you about mentorship, some stories about what it’s meant for us and maybe even how to demystify it for you.

  • First thing… It’s not complicated.  It’s about relationships, as is everything else we do in student affairs.  We sometimes build up the idea of mentorship as something akin to the unicorn, but it’s just about relationship building, which is what most of our work is about when we boil it down.

  • Embrace the weird in our relationships, but don’t let that undermine their importance.  Mel married her first student affairs mentor and still calls Drew for help when she’s stuck at work.  Now, even though we work at a different institution than where Christina and Mel met, Mel’s partner is now Christina’s supervisor. Yup it’s weird. We have all found ways to negotiate multiple roles and respect our boundaries to all get what we need out of these friend/mentor/mentee relationships and it works because we embrace the weird and are clear about what we want/need

  • No one person can do it all.  Mel calls her former colleague and friend Karl when she’s in an ethical quandary.  Christina calls her former supervisor Alexis when she’s needs support on how to best advocate for students.    Mel calls her mentee and friend Christina when she’s in a confidence downward spiral.  We call different people for different needs.  Build your team of people according to your needs.

  • Mentors don’t have to be formally named or “ahead” of you in your career.  As previously mentioned, Christina is as much a mentor to Mel as Mel is to Christina, especially when Mel doesn’t follow her own advice.

  • Some people need strict boundaries of what they share with friends and what the share with mentors.  That hasn’t worked for us.  Sometimes we designate a lunch as “mentor time” and a walk through campus as “friend time”, but mostly, they bleed together and that is ok.  So don’t feel guilty if you don’t define things so strictly either.

  • Not everyone can be a mentor-mentee match.  We’re taught in student affairs that we should be able to work well with EVERYONE.  While that may need to be true from a supervisory standpoint, it’s not necessarily so in voluntary relationships like mentor/mentees.  Successful relationships across the board have some sense of shared values, goals or beliefs, which is true for mentors and mentees as well.  We sometimes meet with new colleagues and instantly want to engage in that relationship with them, while others we are grateful for a collegial relationship and nothing more.

  • Be open to new opportunities that arise for mentorship.  Someone that you may not immediately think will have a positive impact on your career may do just that.  Mel’s colleague Karen came to Student Affairs through different channels and started this work 3 years ago in her office.  When Mel first started as her peer, she didn’t initially see what things Karen could help her learn.  However, the more Mel works with her, the more wisdom and insight Mel finds, appreciates, and learns from.

  • Mentoring relationships are important.  The further Mel gets in her career, the less strong, brilliant, capable and ethical women there are for her to consider as mentors.  That’s why she feels more and more compelled to reach out to new professionals, and tries to see if there’s a connection that may benefit both parties.

  • Women especially seem to always feel the need to have it all put together and mentors are important because they help us see our truth.  Mel learned through one of her current mentors, Melynda, that sexism still exists, that it’s ok to not always have it all “together” and that our work still has to get done, even if the previous two things are true.  What a valuable lesson to see played out in real life.

So reach out, form a relationship and help other women work through the phase of “having it all figured out”.  None of us do, but we can rely on each other to help us believe that we’re OK, we’re doing good work and that we’re going places with our careers.  Having a mentor who believes in you is a priceless entity in any field, but is critical in student affairs.  Don’t be mystified by the concept.  It’s just like everything else we do.  It’s about relationships, development of people and ethic of care.

Melissa A.L. Morgan is the Assistant Dean of Students at Washington State University. Connect with her on Twitter: @malm721.

Christina Gilmore is a Residential Education Director at Washington State University. Find her on Twitter: @Christina714


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