(Originally posted on October 30, 2015)
We should not just reach out to our mentors when we have career- or academic-related questions but also when we may have a more personal issue and need the guidance and reassurance of individuals that have a different perspective. We don’t just need one or two mentors but an entire army of mentors at our fingertips that we can call on, especially in a moment of urgency. A few weeks ago, I was overwhelmed trying to help various individuals at critical points in their academic careers who sought out my advice and guidance, including my teenage son. While I wanted to do everything I could to help all these individuals and provide them with the best possible advice, I did not have a good perspective on certain topics to do this for all them. In particular, I did not feel I had a complete perspective when it came to helping my son decide on the particular colleges to which he should apply and my graduate mentee find a graduate program more in line with his passion.
My mentee is interested in an area that I am not familiar with and thus I had a very hard time coming up with programs that would be a good match for him and that would allow him to thrive. After thinking of various graduate program possibilities and not being able to come with any good leads, I decided to email some very well-connected individuals who would help me come up with appropriate programs and individuals with whom to connect my student. To my surprise the names of individuals they gave me as potential individuals that had a very good program for my student, with the exception of two names, were individuals I knew (not from my discipline but rather from other academic venues and service I have done). One was even a very good friend and collaborator in some work I did a few years ago. So it was very easy to reach out to them and to connect my mentee with these individuals. Since I personally knew these individuals I could even offer him some perspective on these individuals based on my interactions with them. While I knew the individuals, I would not have been able to identify these possibilities and leads for my mentee if I had not reached out to my mentors who are very connected in non-mathematical disciplines and who have daily interactions with many individuals. It is funny how we forget how well-connected we are and the resources we have within our reach through our mentors.
Given my son’s academic interest, I wanted to encourage him to apply to a particular college but I was not sure if this would be a good fit for him given that I did not know much about the culture of the institution and the particular department he was interested in. I did not want to sell a place to him based on my limited knowledge and what I perceived his experience would be if he ended up there. I was stressed and unsure of how much to encourage him when my sister said, “You are a professor. Don’t you know other professors that know that place very well and that can give you some perspective?” I did know some excellent friends and mentors who knew this place very well and its current culture, but for some reason, I had not considered this possibility. Unconsciously I probably thought “well, I am a faculty who has mentored many students and the mother of this kid, so I should be able to mentor and advise him on my own without any problem.” But I did not know this place and thus could not honestly give him the best perspective possible. However, I had four mentors who knew the place intimately and could provide me with different perspectives that I could then communicate to my son.
These mentors not only gave me perspective in regards to the school but also provided very personal views and advice. They put me at ease and made me realize that this is why we need to have multiple mentors and why we need to reach out to our army of mentors. This is true even when it is not necessarily career advice that we are seeking and when it is not necessarily us who are seeking the advice and mentoring.
Through these experiences I gained a better appreciation for the multiple and diverse set of mentors I have. I also realized that if I am to do the best I can when it comes to mentoring others, I need to keep in mind the embeddedness of mentoring such that I, as one mentor, can reach out and connect my mentees to many other mentors and give them multiple perspectives via the perspective of my own mentors. I have to remember to reach out to my army of mentors and continue to nurture and develop my mentoring network so that I will always have mentors regardless of the challenge, questions, or issues I am facing.