I’ve always had mentors. Starting as early as the second grade, when my teacher chose not to correct my backward, slanted, cursive writing. When my mother questioned this, Mrs. Yarborough, whom had taught the second graders of most of the families in her District of Columbia elementary school, determined it showed the individual in me. From her, I learned to listen to the rhythm within my own soul.

Then, there was Mrs. Hunter. Manager of the recreation center on my first Air Force base, despite barely knowing me, Mrs. Hunter opened her home to me, a young, female airman, recuperating from pneumonia. Showing me that angels did exist. 

Admiring her beautiful objects d’art, I listened as she spun wonderful tales of travels abroad. From her, I learned to appreciate and respect the beauty of other cultures. 

Modern Sojourners, all my mentors knew even back then, what many are discovering today—that a lack of mentors, is often a barrier to success. Each, in their own way, helped me to become the person that I am today.

According to John Prejean, founder and owner of Guardian Computer:
“Technology is constantly evolving, requiring those of us in the IT industry to consistently update our knowledge and expand our skills. Even workers outside of IT need to know how to use company software efficiently and protect the organization’s security online. Mentorship is an essential tool for encouraging workers to learn new information and processes of any kind, but especially those related to technology. Having one-on-one interaction and the opportunity to ask questions makes new technology and skills more accessible, leading to better outcomes and satisfaction for both mentees and the mentors who pay it forward.” 

Becoming a Mentor

Years later, it became my turn to mentor when ‘Greg’ was awarded a work-study position in my university department. Normally reserved for undergrads, he was the first graduate student ever awarded this status. 

Despite his colorful ‘do-rags’ (bandanas) his low, hanging pants, and his ‘mad-at-the-world’ attitude, I discovered Greg was super smart. There was also something about him that tugged on my heart strings. At that moment, my commitment to mentoring him, was crystallized.

According to Kevin Miller, Founder and CEO of The Word Counter “Mentees, Supervisors, Managers and Mentors at every level can get value provided by mentoring and to the organization they work for”

Clarity of Expectations

From day one, Greg must have decided that he was going to do just enough to get by, while he completed his master’s degree in Public Health. “’Work-study’ isn’t a ‘real’ job, you know,” he cockily stated, as I explained his duties.

Telling him I did consider his duties—performing literature searches, assisting with grant proposals, and the myriad other tasks he would be assigned—a real job, and if he didn’t want it, he was free to leave. 

During research for their book, The Elements of Mentoring, W. Brad Johnson and Charles R. Ridley, determined that “outstanding mentors initiated discussions about expectations during the formation stage of mentorship. That together, mentor and protégé should come to clear expectations that was agreed upon.” 

Angry, Greg grabbed his back pack, and stormed out of my office.  Getting as far as the water fountain, and realizing he really needed the work study funds, he returned to ask for his position back.

The Characteristics of a Mentor 

Webster’s Dictionary defines the word mentor as a wise and trusted counselor or teacher. Mentors are coaches, cheerleaders, advisers and confidants. Being a mentor does not require anything fancy. And you don’t have to dress a certain way. Mentors bring a wide array of skills to the relationship, so, my careers—soldier, mental health counselor and educator, proved natural prerequisites.

The Reciprocal Benefits of Mentoring

Mentoring relationships are dynamic, reciprocal and personal. By far, mine with Greg, and the other three adults whom I continue to befriend, is one of my greatest joys. All graduates of Emory University where I worked, except for one, they represent the best part of my 21-year tenure on campus. Looking back, I realize that I learned more from each of them than I suspected they ever learned from me. I do know that I grew in more ways than I ever thought possible. Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” In homage to my mentors, I’ve attempted to pay it forward.