It wasn’t until I was well into my graduate education that I began to realize something had been missing from my educational experience. A mentor. I am a Black female PhD student, and I’ve learned a lot during this journey on what mentoring should look like.
When I was younger I assumed that only creative prodigies had mentors and they were somehow selected by way of the universe.
In college, the professors in my undergraduate Africana Studies department took me under their wing. As an introvert, I typically go under the radar until someone decides to seek me out to interact. I showed up to class, I participated in discussions, I did my work. Outside of course obligations I attended departmental events and whenever I felt sure enough, I participated in scholarly discussion. I would often drop by office hours and they were willing to talk to me about anything. During one of these drop ins I had a conversation with a member of the faculty and the department chair about my career interests. I’ll never forget, he said to me “It’s not about what you want to be, but how you want to live”. Once I expressed my pressing desire to pursue a PhD, they immediately recognized the need to mentor me through the process.
But what if they had not?
I felt isolated for most of my K-12 education experience. While I’d been in Gifted programs during my K-12 experience, no one checked in on me when life got rough and negatively impacted my grades. I was never absent from school, yet, I was in the classroom but not actually present. I was no longer engaged and when I started failing, no one seemed to notice. If they did, no one asked a question.
I didn’t know I needed a mentor until long after I needed one.
In a qualitative study done by Kassie Freeman (1999), she surveyed African American college students who were recognized by EBONY magazine as “Top High School Seniors”. She found that while many of them reported on the benefits of having a mentor, they all also reported that they had to seek out mentors on their own. This means there were no formal mentoring programs in place that could aid them in the process of finding a mentor. Not every young person will recognize on their own that they need a mentor.
I’m personally excited to be a part of the process of building up the new Maryland MENTOR affiliate so we can help change this narrative.
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