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  • Writer's pictureLeah Sacks

Mentoring Memoirs

This week, I'm going to write a little bit about a program I'm currently involved with. The group was formed under the leadership of a professor at my university who has recently been funded to work on activities related to the retention of women in science. She decided to start a program to function alongside the existing Women in Science group that already exists amongst the undergraduate students. The new program is a mentorship program, where graduate students are paired with undergraduate students, mentors to mentees. Now, these students already run a high school mentorship program where they are paired with high school student, so this is an opportunity for them to be on the other side of that type of relationship.

As part of this program, I participated in a mentorship training session and completed several online modules. The online modules addressed several expected areas such as EDI training, familiarity with campus resources, and Gender Based Sexual Violence Disclosure training. However, the mentorship training itself was not what I was expecting, in a good way. I was actually expecting to get some of the information that we got in the modules in the training, but instead it was much more a workshop to make you think and help you be mindful going forward. Rather than trying to recount the whole training - though I do recommend it to anyone at my school who has the opportunity to take it - I'm going to just note down a couple of key takeaways that stuck with me and then move on to talk a little bit about interacting with my mentees.

Key Takeaways

  • A mentor does not tell the mentee what to do, they point out options and suggest things the mentee might want to consider.

  • As a mentor it is important to remember that mentees won't necessarily hear that what you are saying is a suggestion, they will take it as the one true answer to their problem.

  • Empathy is different from sympathy. As a mentor, you want to aim for empathetic listening, not sympathetic listening. When a mentee is talking about a problem, you don't respond with a similar story. That makes the conversation about you. Instead, you ask them about how they reacted and how they felt and what they want to do about it.

And a more specific one, but that really resonated with me:

  • Don't assume what someone's reaction to something is going to be. The presenter gave two examples:

    • If someone is stressed, they might be a person who goes into overdrive and works till they drop - which is not healthy. But they might instead be the type of person who shuts down when they're stressed - also not healthy. Asking your mentee how they react or how they respond to certain feelings can be enlightening.

    • A student might email you after talking previously about a really hard exam coming up. That email might say "I got a 60." You might email back saying "Oh well do you have any ideas or strategies for how you might do better next time?" which is a good response if they are disappointed about the grade. But that student might actually be ecstatic about the 60, as that meant they passed the exam.

Moving on, I have two mentees as part of the program. Each month, I'm given a small hospitality services gift card that I can use to take my mentees out for coffee/tea/water/lemonade individually and chat with them. The program also holds panels, events with industry, seminars, etc. With each gift card, I'm also given a couple questions, usually themed on a particular topic, that I can use to prompt conversation with my mentee if I want. I've found that while I do occasionally pick and choose from the list and use the list itself as a conversation starter, my chats with my mentees flow relatively naturally. The experience has been interesting so far. It's really only been about two months, but being in such a position has made me reflect a little bit. In some ways, being a mentor reminds me of how much I know that wasn't told to me, that I have just learned from being in grad school. You forget how much of your insider knowledge is things you picked up along the way. It has also given me insight into some of the other areas of science. Neither of my mentees are in earth sciences or planetary science, but I still know plenty of things that they want to know.

Its early days, so this is just sort of my introduction to the program and my initial thoughts, but maybe I'll touch back later with a reflection on what else I have learned from the program.

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