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Greg mentioned when he left his job as a partner at an accounting firm, it was to pursue teaching in a way akin to "Mr. Holland's Opus." His students are his opus, and his passion to teach, mentor, and develop is to the great benefit of every student he encounters. I first met Greg Dawson as an undergrad 5 years ago. He made the same offer to every student, to help them develop themselves professionally and find the right academic and professional fit. Throughout the years, we have had countless coffee and lunch appointments, always to discuss what's going on, where I want to go, and how to get there – and always with recommendations about the steps to take. Greg is a believer in paying it forward – if he invests time in you, his expectation is that you do this as well for someone else.
In Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, Mentor serves as a friend and counselor to Odysseus, King of Ithaca. When Odysseus left to fight in the Trojan War, he entrusted Mentor to care for and educate his infant son, Telemachus. Over the next 20 years, Mentor guided, educated, trained and encouraged Telemachus until father and son were finally reunited.
This is an important point about mentoring: mentoring is an evolving process and not a static one. Like the relationship between Mentor and Telemachus evolved, so does my mentoring relationship with my protégés. This is the philosophy that I have tried to embrace in my academic career.
The Transactional Period
In this stage, the student has decided to attend ASU and has signed up for a course that I am teaching. This initial relationship is formal, hierarchically-focused and advisory. Here I focus on the immediacy of what needs to be done: what courses need to be taken, what internships to seek etc. The relationship is tactical and, from my position as a professor, I can help students make the right next steps.
This is all that some students are interested in. They have a strong support structure and a very clear sense as to what they want to do and how they want to get there. I understand and, as they move on to the next stage of their life, my role diminishes.
The Relational Period
However, for other students, this is when mentoring starts and it often starts with my sharing of my own personal story. Students see me as fairly accomplished but they are only seeing the ending of my story and not the beginning of it.
My journey to being a professor is a bit atypical and that starts with my Dad’s story. When Dad’s grandmother died when he was still in high school, my father was effectively orphaned. He joined a gang to survive. He was arrested and put in jail numerous times for stealing and assault. After high school, he left his hometown to move to Washington DC in hopes of making something of his life. It was there that he met my mother, who had grown up on a farm in upstate New York. While they both desperately would have loved to attend a four-year college, it simply was not in the cards and so they scrimped and saved to send me to college so I would have the chance that they never did.
When I was in college, it was pretty clear to me which kids were also first generation of their family to go to college. We often talked about how there seemed to be a secret handshake that other people knew about that we had yet to discover. It was in my undergraduate years that I was fortunate to acquire an academic mentor who profoundly influenced my life and I tell students how this professor influenced me.
As I share my story, students start to see me as someone who has had the same struggles that they have; someone who understands the frustration of not knowing the secret code; someone who struggled with the imposter syndrome. In short, they see themselves in me.
Once the students understand that I am a safe place, they start to share their goals, thoughts, fears and ambitions with me. We strip away the “shoulds” that often drive a first-generation student and together develop a plan to allow them to be successful. In this time period, the relationship evolves from transactional to relational and we both become vested in the relation.
With trust now established, my role becomes helping my students broaden their network. I am fortunate to have a robust network and I open that up to them so they can build their own distinct relationships. I refer to this as building their Board of Directors: a group of people that they trust who can help guide them over the coming decades. Like Mentor, I realize that my role as a mentor changes over time and encouraging the students to build their network is my way of ensuring their future success.
The Board of Directors Period
Once the student has graduated, the intensity of my mentoring starts to fade as the protégé is now launched into his/her career. They continue to build their own personal Board of Directors and my role diminishes as they become professionals and move on to new challenges. If my mentoring has been successful, they will now have a suite of mentors in place.
This is when the giving back starts. I tell my protégés my requested “thank you” for helping them: when a new protégé needs help, they will help. In short, this is where I recruit them to join the Board of Directors for new protégés who are now in the Transactional or Relational period.
This does several things. First, it ensures that my new protégés have a variety of more experienced people to mentor them. Secondly, it allows for newer protégés to be placed with a Board of Directors that is right for them. Finally, it allows everyone to build and grow their network. In this way, the relationship continues to evergreen over time rather than being only dependent on a single person (me).
A friend of mine once described the difference between advisors and mentors by comparing the role of a pig and a chicken in the development of breakfast. The chicken is involved in the development of breakfast by contributing eggs to the meal while the pig is committed to the breakfast through its contribution of the bacon. While an advisor is involved with the development of his/her students, a mentor is committed to them.
For my students, I chose to be the pig.