Gwendolyn Dungy

Executive Director Emeritus at NASPA - Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education

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Nothing New Under the Sun: Of Mentors, Mentees, and Common Experiences

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I think what I'm about to write holds true for everyone. It’s just that I've lived so long that it probably happens to me more frequently.

No matter what someone says to me, it seems, I can think of a similar experience that I can relay. When my conversation partners pause to take a breath, I have to work really hard not to jump in and tell them: The very same thing happened to me! I do still share those stories sometimes: I hope they establish that we're similar, that we have something upon which to build a relationship—or at least that we have a common reference point.

When I’m out and about with young professionals, they frequently pull me aside for a private conversation or ask to talk with me by phone at a later date. Usually they want to chat about their career direction.

Sometimes, they just want me to look over a résumé and offer my thoughts. Other times, they seek an introduction or nomination for a professional position. And then there are scholars who want to bring me up to date on their careers so I can serve as a reference. Whatever the request, I’m always open to hearing and helping in any way that I can.

Some of the most intriguing conversations, though, come with people who recently applied for positions but weren't selected: They often tell me about their interviews and ask me for a critique. During these conversations, I turn myself into a fly on the wall. I imagine the space and the interactions from the perspective of the interviewers and the interviewee. I imagine what kind of conversation the search-committee members had prior to the candidate’s interview, and I make assumptions about what the conversation would be afterward.

What’s uncanny about my mental reenactment is that the candidate and I come to the same conclusions about what he or she did well during the interview, and about what needed strengthening. Sometimes one’s reflections upon an experience need a mirror outside of oneself.

In a recent conversation with a tremendously talented midlevel administrator, I was struck by how our experiences were so similar. I was able to share my experiences and what I learned upon reflection. I also found that the person in describing her experiences used the exact same words that I used when I wrote in my journal following our common experience!

While time marches on and the circumstances in regard to climbing the career ladder may differ, I continue to be amazed by how the experiences elicit many of the same responses and reactions that colleagues generations before also expressed. It’s these kinds of encounters that convince me that mentors can be useful.

Seldom am I stumped for words when I’m in conversation with those who want a sounding board. But I try not to lose sight of my first rule of communication: Listen attentively and encourage the speaker to continue. When I do respond, because this person has trusted me with their deepest dreams, aspirations, and fears, I have moved them to my inner circle of people I love and want to protect and help succeed.

At times I have shied away from being a mentor in the formal sense because I didn’t think I had enough to offer. But I realize now that it’s not what the mentor thinks she has to offer, but what the person who wants a mentor thinks. And if the mentor has reflected on her experiences and gleaned lessons from them, the relationship can be mutually beneficial.

After listening and sharing with some of my colleagues who are thinking about the career paths they want to take, I feel energized, hopeful, and useful. There are not many experiences that can leave me with such a feeling of euphoria.

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