Thursday, April 06, 2006

The accidental mentor

Not so long ago, one late afternoon, I was sitting in my office catching up on some work. My office door was open, but my back was to the door, so I didn't notice the person lurking in the hallway. Finally, a soft knock on the door, and a completely unfamiliar face.

me: Hello.

Student: Hi. Um, are you a professor?

me: (!!!) Um, yeah. [said with a bit of an attitude, I will admit.]

Student: Are you a [field somewhat related to mine housed in the same building] professor?

me: No, I'm a computer science professor.

Student: Oh. [pause] Well, can I talk to you anyway?

At this point I'm thinking "no, please go away and let me get back to my work", but I couldn't think of a polite way to say so, so I said, "Well, it depends. What would you like to talk about?"

Turns out that this young woman was thinking about becoming a major in that other field, but could not track down anyone to talk to that day. Turns out that all she really wanted was someone to listen as she verbally worked through why she wanted to be a major in Other Field (which is also underrepresented in the number of women and minorities) and what was holding her back from doing so. Since Other Field is somewhat related and in the same building, I know a bit about their program, and so we sat and chatted for about 20 minutes. I mostly listened, but was able to point out some things for her to consider, as well as boost her confidence (since some of the conversation touched on imposter syndrome issues). She seemed very happy as the conversation ended, indicated that she probably would major in that field, and thanked me profusely.

(Lest you think I was all altruistic here, I did put in a heavy sales pitch for her to try a few CS classes---many majors in that program do so anyway---and she sincerely said she would. But clearly her heart is with Other Field, and I respect that.)

Sometimes mentoring is weird. Sometimes the best mentoring happens at the moments we least expect it. Sometimes it requires us to help people we're otherwise not invested in, or may never see again. In a sense, part of me felt disappointed after that interaction, because it felt like "recruiting for the enemy". (Not that Other Field is the enemy---not at all!---but I guess I felt a bit jealous that this woman was all fired up about that field and not my field.) But a larger part of me also felt like this was ultimately a Really Good Thing. It could be the type of thing that this student remembers 5 or 10 or 20 years down the road, when she's in a position to help other, younger women get a leg up in Other Field---maybe it will convince her to become a mentor, intentional or otherwise.


Jill said...

Oh, that story made me feel all warm and generous. Thanks :)

Katie said...

Due to the nature of my current fellowship, I still feel much more like a student than faculty. So this story reminded me not only of good times in grad school but of lovely interactions I've had so far in my post-doc.

I think it's an amazing story. Some of the most crucial moments of my career have come sitting alone with a professor in his/her office. I know this person is busy - has far too much to do at any moment - which somehow makes the attention - answering questions, offering considerations, providing encouragement - so meaningful.

I love this student for seeking you out, and I adore you for providing something that will certainly give her hope when college gets rough. There are incredible faculty members out there - sometimes it's just tricky to get their attention.

Ms.PhD said...

It's funny, reading those two comments I can honestly say I've been on both sides of the table.

Yes, that conversation you had might change her life. I sometimes like to think that my interactions with students may be my longest-lasting legacy, if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, rather than anything I did myself or published of my own work.

On the other hand, I've had lots of those kinds of conversations but some of us actually do realize when we're doing all the talking. We're actually looking for substantial guidance or help and we're not getting it.

Sometimes a little encouragement is all we need, but personally I'm at a point right now where it's not enough. I need mentoring in the form of concrete actions taken on my behalf, and I'm not getting it. That's where the whole mentoring system breaks down. I sometimes think it's really sad that students have spend so much energy to go hunting around for someone to help them, when they should be getting more guidance and have more resources available in easy-to-reach places.

What does it say about her field of interest that she couldn't find anybody there, in the whole building, to talk to her? I'm thinking that's a cosmic sign that she should do CS instead (wink wink).

Anyway you're a good person for helping out random student from outside your field- that gets extra karmic brownie points.

Scooter said...

Thanks for the comment on the blog. I find some patterns in my greetings. I get ignored by young women - no eye contact, no greeting (except the strong athletes), one of my runs takes me through a fairly poor black area, there, I get bigger return hellos than anywhere. While I see both men and women who are older, and young men, almost never a young woman. Parts of these dynamics make perfect sense, others just seem odd (or wrong), esp. in light of the circumstance. Be well, and good luck with the tenure chase.