Why spend thousands of hours a year mentoring young people?


By Adrienne Wallace, Ph.D.

When I was just a little seedling in undergraduate studies, I recall writing a thank you note to a professional after she spoke to my fundamentals of public relations class. What was so shocking about that note was that I actually got a note back! However, to my horror, instead of being inspiring or challenging, it was openly hostile and threatening. In this note, she called me “overly emotional” and “saccharine,” essentially calling me a kiss ass! I was afraid I blew it by simply extending gratitude to her for taking time to visit my class.

What I didn’t understand exactly then, but now understand, was that I was looking for a mentor in this woman. I was trying to express gratitude for her time in an attempt to develop a relationship with her, but boy was I barking up the wrong tree. She was conveying to me that my gratitude was a “weakness,” and I frankly couldn’t disagree more. I knew in my heart and my bones that this “professional” was wrong on so many levels. This interaction made me first cry, but then it made me angry, and then I became determined to do better for others than this woman did for me.

So why do I do it? Why spend thousands of hours a year mentoring young people?

Gratitude drives me to mentor others.

Despite people sometimes believing the contrary, no one “makes it” in this life without the help of others. I feel that if I can demonstrate gratitude and inspire gratitude in others in the early stages of young pro careers, and that personal interactions, even the early or beginning ones (like the kind needed for networking) can be less intimidating and, dare I say it, even fun. By creating an environment where kindness chokes out the darkness, the playing field can be somewhat leveled to the point where we can all engage in meaningful, thoughtful and mutually beneficial ways. We shouldn’t be cutting each other down (and women know how to cut the deepest, don’t they?). The truth is we need each other, and if you cannot mentor positive interactions and coach sound professional development, then get out of the way. The rest of us have a world to inspire.

Maintaining relevancy drives me to mentor others.

Nothing keeps you as fresh in a profession than having meaningful dialogue with folks who are different from you. The longer I’m a professor the further away from the current college-going generation I get (for the most part). In order to be a better practitioner I need to know what’s coming down the pipe. In order to be a better connector in the classroom, I need to know what drives, moves or scares my students. In order to help fight injustice in the workplace, I need to understand how other people think. And so on. My thoughts are a result of my personal experiences, and they are not the only experiences. Exposing myself to the issues of others helps me becomes a more empathetic professor and professional.

Building and maintaining a network drives me to mentor others.

A mentor/mentee relationship should not be quid pro quo; however it does work both ways. I’m not so naive that I cannot wrap my mind around the possibility of working for professionals a generation or two younger than me. The people I mentor have connected me to their own networks, recommended me for positions, and informed me of new opportunities. While I have not as of yet capitalized on this information for myself, this network has helped me pass along opportunities to others. Since I work with young professionals so often, I typically get job postings and internship opportunities before they are posted public. This is very valuable to my mentees and advisees. Just today, I had a former intern send me a job description about a week before it becomes public, so she is using her network to connect to my network in order to pre-screen qualified graduating seniors for an entry-level job. That’s plain smart. I’m happy to help move this information through the system. You can’t beat the networked approach to hiring.

The future of my profession drives me to mentor others.

I didn’t have a strong female mentor early in my career. I fumbled and stumbled through the first five years of my career. The future of equality and quality depends on professionals mentoring the next generation of pros. If I (we – all of us really) don’t help the up-and-coming generation get their foundation solid now, who in the world will we be forced to collaborate with later? There are a lot of haters out there that like to complain about how this generation can’t do this or that, or complain that they do certain things and not others, but you know what…we’re part of this problem. Their perceived or actual failings and deficiencies are actually OUR failings and deficiencies. Gen Y/millennials are STARVING for our attention, they want to be helped and mentored toward success. They are eager to learn and have so much to teach us if only we would just pay attention to the signs. To maintain ethics, professionalism, sound tactical implementation, creativity, strategy and problem-solving in public relations means I have to demonstrate to the next generation of practitioners how to do it well and how to not screw it up. Then they are able to add their personal style to this tribal knowledge and be better than us/me/we. We can’t start them out at a deficiency just because it bothers us. We have to be better than that.

The secret to mentorship that often goes overlooked is that it’s not a one-way street. It’s not just the mentee that benefits; the mentor also benefits. Being entrusted as a mentor has grown my own career and added a richness to my own life that I honestly didn’t even know I was missing until I started mentoring young people. Very early in my career I stumbled upon this Hindu proverb and it struck a chord within me: “They who give have all things; they who withhold have nothing.” You could say I embraced it as my personal mantra. I do believe that I have all things.

If I can do it, you can too. Can you imagine the power of mentorship if we each mentor one that mentors one that mentors one? Help me build a mentor army, won’t you?

Author’s note: A version of this blog first appeared in a print edition of West Michigan Woman Magazine, it has been since been modified and edited.