Lessons Learned as a First Year Mentor by Dwaynia Wilkerson

I think most people who decide to become a mentor have the best intentions. I was motivated by the opportunity to work closely with a young lady bound for college.  As a first-generation college goer, I had the full support of my family, but they couldn’t offer much guidance. My high school counselors weren’t very helpful so I made the best decisions for college as a 17-year-old could. Those decisions included choosing a major for which I was less than suited, choosing a college because my friends were attending, and spending way too many nights getting acclimated to campus life rather than studying. Those choices set me back academically and affected my family financially.  But, I made it through with lessons learned and advice to spare.
From there, my goals for mentorship were simple: I wanted to prevent my mentee from making the same mistakes I had.
As it turns out, my mentee is nothing like I was at that age. In fact, she’s probably as together at 18 as I was at 26.  She didn’t really need the help that I’d already decided I’d give her. Once I accepted that realization, I had to adjust the premature expectations I’d placed on our relationship.  What I’ve learned instead is that you have to build and nurture relationships as needed.
For me, that meant learning to
  1. Have an open mind. My idea of being in a mentor/mentee relationship was actually not what was most beneficial for either of us. I had to remain open to learning about and meeting my mentee’s specific needs.  At the end of the day, the relationship is not about what you want to give, but instead about helping the mentee to get what she needs.
  2. Be consistent. This may prove difficult for some.  It certainly did for me.  But there is success to be found in choosing to do one thing and do it consistently well.  That one thing may be a weekly phone call on Thursday afternoons; a coffee date on Saturday mornings; or a study session on Wednesday before school.  Whatever it may be, choose one area in which you can both commit to consistently showing up and being present.
  3. Think outside the box. There’s no right or wrong way to serve as a mentor.  Remember, your goal is to provide what’s needed. If you happen to be working with someone who is 10+ years your junior, there is an increased probability of a disconnect in the ways you think and communicate. That’s ok!  Rather than dismissing those differences, acknowledge them.  Then figure out a way to bridge the gap.  The worst decision you can make is to act as if differences don’t exist.
Essentially working on a mentor/mentee relationship is no different than working on any other relationship, whether familial, friendly, or professional.  Relationships, in order to be functional and beneficial, require communication and effort.