mentors: irreplaceable cornerstones in a successful career

My mentee, Lynn and me during a hot chocolate and cover letter edits night in!

My mentee, Lynn and me during a hot chocolate and cover letter edits night in!

I asked the great folks in the social media world where they met their mentors. Was it a natural mentorship? One that grew out of shared passions, places of employment or career goals? Or was the relationship initiated by a program both parties participated in? Overwhelmingly, the masses said their mentors were a natural progression, one without even a label.

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So, does this mean mentorship programs aren't necessary? Are mentors abundantly available that there isn't a need for a program? So many questions about a seemingly innocuous topic. I’ve come to find that mentors, however they’re acquired, are irreplaceable cornerstones in a successful career. And that’s not just because mine are the best of the best.

When I was a spry sophomore in journalism school, hell-bent on the pursuit of local TV, I came across a posting for a mentorship program through my college: The College of Communication and Information’s Mentor Match Program. Okay, if we’re being honest, my mom found it and sent it to me. She’s not a helicopter mom, I just moved really far away and she liked to be involved.

Anyway—I decided to attend. It was intimidating. We met successful alum after successful alum in a speed-dating style, presenting our elevator speech across the table. I remember thinking, “Why am I so nervous? These people WANT to be here. These people WANT to help.”

I think that notion is common. We feel paralyzed by the fear of putting people out, of asking too much of them. But what this program allowed was a pool of people who recognized that being a mentor was not an imposition, but an opportunity.

I was matched with the lovely Liz: a former Hill reporter turned university communicator. She was young, yet much wiser than me, and full of untapped contacts. And while yes, Liz had agreed to be there, as one of those people who didn’t see it as an imposition, I’m not sure she really knew what she was getting herself into by being paired with me.

Watch this embarrassing video of Liz and me. This is what happens when two journalists who are usually behind the camera are forced to be in front.

That was nearly five years ago. Since then, she’s hired me, paid me as a student, cooked me dinner, given references upon references on my behalf, helped me find a dentist and a car mechanic and a safe neighborhood to live in. She’s talked me through pay negotiations, career changes and breakups. She’s reviewed my applications, cover letters and presentations. She’s recruited me for the alumni committee she steers, the happy hours she attends and the book clubs she joins. She is why I could move to a new city, six-hours from home, and decide to stay. I can link every interview, every pay raise and every job to Liz.

Over the years, there have many other mentors that I’m eternally grateful to. The seasoned producer at my first news job that sat with me through my first live show. The morning news anchor who managed to find that ever-elusive balance between work and life. And my built-in mentor and idol, my mom.

Mentors are everywhere—especially in communications. It’s a field that no one else can understand—and we get through it together.

Ew I hate my voice recorded. I am such a dork.

Last year, I was recruited, by Liz, to complete the circle: become a mentor in the journalism school’s program. I was happy to oblige. This year, I agreed again. The Mentor Match program works by grouping students and mentors based on their major or industry. In 2016, as a broadcast journalism alumna and a news producer, I was paired with a broadcast student. Now working in a public relations position, I was paired with two PR students. We meet monthly, and though the program outlines topics for us to discuss, I like to focus on whatever the student needs. Since both of my mentees are seniors, it’s a lot of cover letter and resume edits, interview tips, personal branding techniques. And I love it. There is something so fulfilling about pouring into someone else while simultaneously being poured into yourself. I find that sometimes the conversations I have with my mentors are easily applicable to my mentees, and other times they’re just nuggets for me to carry.

I think these relationships have been successful because of the ability to address specific goals. When I met with Lynn and Hannah, I asked them what they wanted to get out of our year together. The formal structure of the program allowed for this conversation to be comfortable and somewhat expected. It’s something that naturally acquired mentorships may not always comfortably allow. I think it also just depends on the personalities. For me, it helped that Liz is a tattooed, craft beer enthusiast. There’s an approachability to her that broke down the “mentor assigned to me by the j-school” mentality. We’ve become more than mentor/mentee, so there are times we just talk about her adorable daughter or baby #2 cooking away in her stomach.

I want to be that kind of mentor to those who choose me, or have the misfortune of being placed with me. I want to be a cheerleader for them, a champion with perhaps slightly more experience. I want to know that the mistakes I’ve made, professionally or otherwise, can be used to inform those who come across similar forks in the road. Terry Tempest Williams said “To write requires an ego, a belief that what you say matters. Writing also requires an aching curiosity leading you to discover, uncover, what is gnawing at your bones.” And in a way, mentorship is like this too.

I first met Liz on a fall day. We met on a bench on the university’s historic Horseshoe. We sat shoulder to shoulder discussing her past accomplishments and my future goals. And five years later, on that same bench, on a winter day, I met with Hannah, offering what little I could, but promising to stay just like that—shoulder to shoulder.

I have a thing for life coming full circle. Perhaps, it’s the writer in me, always searching for an ending to tie everything up in a neat bow. But really, I think it’s an acknowledgement and appreciation for the opportunities I’ve had, and an understanding that they are not mine to hoard, but in fact, a duty to pass on.