I met Greg* when he was awarded a work-study position. In fact, he was the first graduate student ever awarded this status, as normally it was only awarded to undergrads. From day one, Greg must have decided that he was going to do just enough to get by while he completed his masters degree. He even told me that he didn’t consider his work-study position to be a “real” job.
A former soldier used to people following orders, I told Greg that I considered his duties performing literature searches and other tasks a real job. I also told him that there was a “right” way to do them and a wrong one, and that I was only interested in the right way. If he couldn’t abide by that, he was free to leave. This made him so angry that he walked off the job.
He later told me that he got as far as the water fountain at the end of the hall before realizing that he was hungry and had little money in his checking account. Without his work-study money, things would only get worse. Thus he swallowed his pride and returned to the office to ask for his job back, which made him even angrier.
This happened some 16 years ago. For a time, the two of us remained at war. However, despite his low-hanging pants that begged for a belt, there was something about Greg that forged a connection between us. It was at that moment that my commitment to mentoring was crystallized. Today, Greg, a successful public health analyst, is now married, the father of two children, and is still a huge part of my life. Most recently he accompanied me to the hospital when my husband suffered a small stroke.
My mentorship relationship with Greg and the three other young adults whom I continue to mentor and befriend is by far one of my greatest joys. Well established in their careers, our relationship spans from 8 to 10 to nearly 16 years respectively. All graduates of the university where I work except one, they represent the best part of my eighteen-year tenure on Emory’s campus.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word mentor as “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.” Mentors are this and much more. Mentors are coaches and cheerleaders, advisers and confidants. Being a mentor requires that you be knowledgeable in a wide variety of topics that reach far beyond the field of education or the formal classroom. Simply put, mentors bring who they are to what they do. So the careers that I chose — soldier, mental health counselor, and educator — seemed natural prerequisites.
Being a mentor does not require anything fancy. And you don’t have to dress a certain way. While mentoring can be formal or informal, my relationships with my mentees are pretty informal, which suits all concerned. We touch base regularly by email or by phone. Sometimes we meet over lunch or dinner so that they can brainstorm, talk, and even vent.
As a mentor I help my mentees examine the plethora of conditions that keep them from finding their truth and achieving their unique potential. More often than not, my interaction with the men consists of discussing decisions that they have already decided upon, career or otherwise. Mentoring the women frequently means addressing their perception of not being on equal footing as men in their careers, which unfortunately is a systematic part of organizational reality.
Long ago I also learned that mentors can’t be squeamish about discussing personal matters. Over the years I have been asked my thoughts on everything from whether a pantsuit or dress suit was best for a specific job interview to my thoughts on dating. Seeking Mr. Right, one of the women pondered why she kept attracting Mr. Right Now, Mr. Wrong, and most recently Mr. Crazy, whom she failed to recognize until the stalking began. Alas, the subject of dating is a mite tricky, as having been married for over thirty-six years I haven’t dated in a long time. I suspect this comes as great news to my spouse. Being a mentor is worth every laugh, every tear. I have learned more from them than I suspect they’ve ever learned from me. And I’ve grown in more ways than I ever thought possible.
Recently, a young woman stopped by my office for few minutes to chat. Looking around my office at my books, pictures and objets d’art, she remarked that I have lived a “rich life.” Out of the mouths of babes was this profound revelation — yes, I have lived a rich life. Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” In homage to my own mentors, I am paying it forward.
Carol Gee, M.A. is an editor and business writer at Goizueta Business School at Emory University. She is also a freelance writer and the author of the books, "The Venus Chronicles," and "Diary of a ‘Fly Girl’ Wannabe (Life Lessons of a Cool Girl in Training)." Her work has appeared in Romantic Homes Magazine, Atlanta Woman Magazine and numerous others.