By Jody Dixon, Assistant Director of International Education and Global Initiatives, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and Sara Michels, Membership Intern, Global Ties U.S.
Jody, you’ve described the mentor-mentee relationship as being reciprocal, noting that “the mentee drives the bus, and the mentor just fills the gas tank.” As a student, I have found that reaching out and building relationships with mentors can be overwhelming, but extremely helpful. Would you be able to provide any insight or advice on how a mentor can ‘fill the gas tank’ of their mentee, or help them move forward with their goals?
Sara, I completely agree that reaching out or connecting with an individual with the intent of developing this type of relationship can be extremely daunting. I still find myself taking pause before I contact anyone in this regard. We have been socialized to believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness, coupled with the crippling effects of the fear we experience related to potential rejection.
Seeking out mentorship is an investment. You’re taking steps toward personal and professional growth. With any type of investment, there is some level of risk involved. Making first contact might mean risking rejection. Opening yourself up to criticism and feedback might mean accessing and expanding your vulnerability. Taking these actions comes with varying levels of discomfort, and because these actions might elicit “scary” emotional responses within us, which might cripple our decision-making and subsequently our ability to act, it is important to learn to manage expectations and emotions related to building these relationships. While we’re working on these things – though it might be easier said than done – I recommend “doing it scared” anyway.
Let’s take a step back to managing expectations, especially as it relates to reciprocity. We often think of reciprocity as parties investing “equally” into the relationship. The mentor-mentee dynamic will not be reciprocal. I consider it to be “unbalanced.” One person is seeking out the assistance of another person who has already acquired certain experiences, resources, etc. This is the “gas” that fills up the mentee’s tank. It is important that both parties are aware of this dynamic, and are honest regarding the goals, expectations, and the potential outcomes of the relationship. It is also important to outline these at the beginning of the relationship. Be mindful, that unless mandated by an organization, mentors are essentially volunteers, making an investment into the development of another person. Which means that while the mentor does have the gas to fill one’s tank, the mentee must pull the car around, point them to the tank, etc. i.e., the onus of managing this relationship is on the mentee.
Sara, what have you learned from seeking out potential mentors? What has been the most effective way to approach this process? Has this process always led to healthy, working mentor-mentee relationships?
Throughout my experience as a mentee, I have learned so much about the professional atmosphere and workplace. I have been introduced to many new concepts and career opportunities, just through reaching out to people who already work in fields related to my interests. My mentors have helped introduce me to the opportunities that have shaped who I am, today. I’ve found that the most effective way to approach this process is by starting a conversation with someone who has knowledge about anything you are interested in. Taking initiative and reaching out to people who may work in your desired career field or company allows you to get a better sense of the professional atmosphere before entering the workforce. These people can also offer great advice about programs or opportunities that may be of interest. Many of my previous mentors have truly inspired me to grow, both personally and professionally.
Jody, what is it about being a mentee / mentor that inspires you and helps you to grow personally and professionally? Why are you so passionate about this work?
Having moved to the United States as an adult, I had to relearn navigating academic, social, and professional environments. I have benefitted from the grace shown to me by patient and encouraging friends (life mentors), stellar colleagues (peer mentors) and professional mentors. The benefits of being a mentor or a mentee are endless. I enjoy being of service to others, and being a mentor is essentially my way of paying my good fortune (in the form of excellent mentors) forward.
Because I consider myself a lifelong learner, I sincerely enjoy being both a mentor and a mentee. As a mentor, I am required to be an active listener; socially and emotionally aware; empathetic to the needs of my mentees; resourceful; solution-oriented; and many things in between. Some of these characteristics are innate, others are skills that have been acquired and honed over time. I have a personal commitment to continuously improving myself, and so I will always be someone’s mentee to learn and improve, and to be better equipped and prepared to be of service to others in my capacity as a mentor.
As a Black immigrant woman and educator, I have found that my purpose centers on using the knowledge and experiences gained from navigating spaces as an outsider; my sense of discernment; and my abilities as an active listener and learner, to guide and connect marginalized people to opportunities and communities that will support their academic and professional goals.
Sara, have you been a mentor? If so, what was it that you valued most about that experience?
I have not yet been a mentor to anyone. Throughout my courses at George Mason University and my internship here at Global Ties U.S., I always made an effort to get to know my peers and share opportunities and information with them. Many of the interns I have met have been undergraduate students, so I have been able to share many opportunities with them that I had learned during my undergraduate study. In this way, I sort of have been a mentor – in small ways that don’t require set expectations – but it has been very valuable to me and helps me build firmer relationships that encourage growth and success.
I am a firm believer that you are who you surround yourself with, so I always feel good sharing opportunities and boosting people up whenever I can! One of the first things I learned about mentor-mentee relationship building was that anyone can become a mentor, because each person has a knowledge base that another person may need. Similarly, anyone who is seeking to expand their knowledge base, regardless of their current expertise, can become a mentee. I always try to keep this in mind when I am sharing information and opportunities with my peers, because most people are open to mentorship and sharing opportunities with one another. This also helps to encourage mutual respect and engagement within these relationships.
Jody, can you talk about the importance of mutual respect and engagement in a mentor-mentee relationship, and why does this matter?
This is such an important part of the mentor-mentee relationship. In fact, it’s one of the most important parts of building any type of relationship. Respect should not only be extended to or demanded from someone based on the perception of their worth. Respect is basic human decency and should be extended to each person.
There are a variety of mentor types: peer mentors, life mentors, and professional mentors. That means that in every relationship there will be age, financial status, gender, etc. dynamics at play. Being self, emotionally, and socially aware is important in managing this relationship. It also helps both parties maintain clarity on whether the mentor-mentee relationship they’re in, or pursuing, is one where they feel valued and respected.
You may have come across the term “quiet quitting,” and the relationship between employees’ boundaries vs. disengagement at work. Most organizations do a poor job of investing in the growth and development of their employees. Not every employee will be a self-starter or take the initiative to seek out opportunities if these opportunities are in fact available in their place of employment. When we begin to consider who has access to these opportunities, the numbers dwindle even further if we focus on minority groups and immigrant populations. For me, good mentorship is a way of addressing belonging, equity, access, and inclusion in different spaces.
The Global Ties Network is comprised of a diverse range of professionals at all stages of their careers. Jody, can you share any helpful advice for how our Network can best involve young professionals in a way that adds value to both the organization, and everyone involved?
I think it’s admirable that the organization is asking this question. Having such a diverse range of professionals, at different stages in their careers, means that there is much talent and expertise that exists within the Network. Be consistent in including the Network in the ongoing work of the organization. Engage members as cocreators. Profile and amplify the achievements of diverse members. The Network is only as strong as the people who are actively pouring in it. Finding ways to ensure people can see themselves in the work is very important. BUILD COMMUNITY ACROSS MEMBERSHIP.
A sense of belonging is not only important to an individual’s success, but in ensuring that those you serve feel like they are seen in the mission and values of the organization; that they are being considered in the work is an important element of organizational success.
What are some ways that a mentor and mentee can stay in touch after a mentorship is over?
Yes, mentorships end! Mentorship is time bound. What your post-mentorship relationship looks like is dependent on the type of relationship you and your mentor develop over time.
Ideally, your mentorship relationship will end on a good note, after you have met your prescribed goals. At this point, you should communicate on what moving forward looks like. I am still connected with all the people who have been mentored me. Yes, all! The very first person who hired me is preparing for retirement. Recently, we had a conversation about transitions, and the process of moving back to one’s home country after a decade of living abroad. Though we are at different stages in our lives, this experience is one we are both currently working through.
I follow these individuals’ work. I congratulate them on their accomplishments. I check in on holidays and birthdays. I visit them if time allows while I am in the countries they currently live. I make it a practice to reinvest in those that have invested in me. Naturally, this looks very different for each person. If your mentorship relationship hasn’t organically developed into a relationship that will continue past the mentorship, there are other ways to stay in touch.
- Show appreciation – Don’t forget to make your mentor feel valued. Following up with thank you messages related to something you may have learned from them that has become quite useful is a great way to check in.
- Interact with their work – Congratulate a mentor on accomplishments that you might be made aware of via your network, LinkedIn, etc. Be encouraging and supportive as they continue to make progress in their academic or professional endeavors.
- Pay it forward – Continue to build community. If the mentor has the capacity to take on a new mentee, introducing them to a colleague or a friend who could benefit from their guidance is way to build a network which includes an old mentor.
Sara, how have you maintained connections with your mentors? Have some strategies worked better than others?
Yes, I also have maintained contact with my mentors. I am just starting my professional career, so I am constantly looking for mentors who are willing to help me grow, such as by introducing me to their networks and bringing me to their social events. It’s important to maintain contact after a mentorship ends because networks are huge and everybody knows someone – so even if a current mentor-mentee relationship has ended, that mentor may be able to introduce you to someone else who is a better match for where you are in your personal or professional trajectory.
Maintaining contact after a mentorship ends can be easy, especially with the introduction of social media-based apps like LinkedIn. However, I agree that it is important to still reach out every once in a while, get coffee, send a personalized message, congratulate them on their accomplishments, and reach out on holidays. Don’t forget that these people have helped to boost you up in one of the most important aspects of your life. Show your appreciation, thank them for everything that they have done, and always be open to paying it forward.