Mentoring: More Difficult and More Rewarding than it Looks

The Keys to Academic Success

There seems to be a lot of mentoring going on all over the Hill these days. But, what does this really mean? Mentoring usually refers to two types of situations: (1) an organization matches older volunteers with younger strangers who want to be helped – such as in the mentoring programs at Jan’s Tutoring House here on the Hill or Capital Partners for Education throughout metro DC; (2) older and younger people, already acquainted, agree to work together.

I myself am a fan of 'free-range mentoring.' Here, an older person wanders around saying crazy things to motivate random young people to want the best for themselves and hoping somebody responds favorably. Family coach and youth mentor Joshua Wayne, a Capitol Hill resident, explains why this approach so rarely pays dividends.

Establishing a very strong rapport is essential, because for the most part you are sharing your knowledge and wisdom based on your life experiences,” says Wayne. “The best mentors have the ability to establish deep rapport and really understand where the mentee is on their journey.”

Inter-generational settings, such as a school, job, or place of worship, offer the best locales to find either mentors or mentees. The advice structure is already in place. The potential for mentoring boils down to whether the parties enjoy each other's company.

For example, Eastern High School basketball coach Emmanuel Kakulu lists his older assistant coach, Brandon Jackson, as a mentor. For Kakulu, who also teaches full-time, mentoring can even be painful. Last year, in his third season with his current group of players, Kakulu’s team suffered a major academic setback that ended their season prematurely.

I knew when I asked myself, ‘Did you do everything you could do?’ the answer was ‘No’,” Kakulu says. “And it ate away at me because I knew I had to live with that. We do so much more here than coach.” Namely, mentoring!

So why would anyone get into mentoring if it’s such a challenge?

Serving as a mentor honors the commitment of those who supported me as a young professional,” says Capitol Hill resident Maurice Cook, who directs the non-profit Serve Your City and teaches at the community college of the University of the District of Columbia.

The key to an effective mentoring session is great communication. Mentors have to be able to talk about their personal experiences in a way will resonate with mentees, and mentees have to be willing to share their feelings about recent life events if their mentors are to be able to offer meaningful advice. Or, as one of my mentors used to shout at her charged, “You have to give something to get people to help you!”

 This is exactly the strategy I employ today as a free-range mentee myself. By demonstrating that I am eager to progress academically, professionally, and personally, and remembering that it’s as important to be interesting as it is to be interested, I’ve managed to forge several long-lasting relationships with mentors. The continuing benefits of these interactions only perpetuates my gratitude for them and encourages me to continue seeking the counsel of those who’ve been where I’m trying to go.

The things you're going through and will go through are not unique, and being able to tap into the wisdom of somebody who has traversed similar terrain can be invaluable,” says Wayne. “If you can find a mentor in a key area of life where you'd like to grow, and you feel a connection with that person, you should jump on the opportunity to cultivate that relationship.”

If that sounds like a lot of work, well, it is; but it’s worth it.

Paul Rivas is the founder of Smith Rivas Academic Coaching & Consulting. He can be contacted at paul@smithrivas.com.


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