Last week a student in his senior year noticed me in the Lang Café. He walked over to my table away from the lunch sounds of hurried eating and loud conversation. He seemed eager to chat.

“If you have some time, sit down and join me.”

He took one of the empty chairs and settled in. I was glad he did for I had been reading an article about Werner Freund; how he had lived most of his adult life with wolves and rose in the wolfish hierarchy to become Alpha Male. I was glad to be distracted by someone decidedly human.

“I was on the Linked In website,” he began, “and saw your profile. I found one of your recommendations intriguing.”

“Which?”

“I don’t recall his name but he thought he was lucky to meet you early in his career. I like the sentence which said your mentoring helped him get a prestigious National Security scholarship.”

“Prestigious it was. The result was better than I could have imagined. The amount he received was hefty.”

“Do you mind if I ask what he got?”

“Not at all. The Department of Homeland Security pays well to train cyber warriors. For three years at NYU terminating in a double M.A. degree in Cyber Security and Applied Mathematics, he’ll have received two hundred and thirty-eight thousand dollars.”

“That’s impressive. Why was the mentoring so successful?”

“Negatively I helped him steer clear of erroneous grad school choices. Positively I helped him match his talents to an attractive career. He was superb at analysis and finding patterns. The only thing that might have short-circuited my efforts was if he lost interest and walked away. I’m known for being tenacious but I never push. This young man stayed the course.”

“You ought to write something on mentoring for your column. I’d like to know what you think it is and how you function in it.”

I took his advice and the words that follow address his interest. I call it simply: On Mentoring.

Definition of Mentoring

It is the establishment of a trusted, personal relationship for instruction and guidance, and is exercised in the one-on-one education of students. It exists between a young adult and someone senior in experience who offers support and concrete assistance as the younger partner embarks on a new career, embraces an important task, or corrects an earlier problem.

Mentees so identify with their mentors, that they are able to do for themselves what their mentors have done for them. This occurs successfully when the older individual is not removed from the mentee by a social distance. With distance, the mentors’ values, knowledge, and skills may seem irrelevant and their goals naïve. The results are a superficial cooperation and finally withdrawal.

Social distance can be breached when the mentors provide resources that the mentees need; for example, examining a prospective college, studying the catalog, or helping with application essays. These activities offer psychological support and show that goals can be reached through a series of measured steps.

Consequently, matching mentors and mentees of similar social class, race, gender, and even religious background ensures a meaningful connection. Mentoring failure is the inability to offer the specific support or resources mentees need. But when mentors provide sensitive, timely contact and appropriate resources, mentees find their mentors compatible.

The Role of Mentors

Mentors often compensate for inadequate and dysfunctional socialization (parenting) or give support for new behaviors. They create opportunities to enter new arenas of education and work.

In their psychosocial roles, they act as role model and counselors, offering confirmation, clarification, and emotional support. Because young adults move through contradictory worlds, mentors help them resolve these contradictions.

In their instrumental roles, they act as teachers, advisers, coaches, advocates, and dispensers of concrete resources. Sustained support is crucial. A critical aspect of the mentor-mentee relationship is trust. The mentor needs to be personally predictable and the mentoring, of some duration. Mentees come with high hopes, great suspicion, or both. Their conflicts are heightened by erratic scheduling, loose programs, abandoned initiatives, or sexual innuendo. These destroy the relationship and harden mistrust.

Ten Characteristics of Good Mentoring

1. It grows out of a voluntary interaction.

2. It has a cycle: introduction; trust-building; teaching of risk-taking, communication, and skills; transfer of professional standards; and dissolution.

3. Mentors pass down information to the next generation. Here lies the deep satisfaction: the modified imprint of self on another that produces a “relative immortality.” Like great painting, music, or writing, mentoring is an art.

4. Mentors encourage protégés in setting and attaining short and long-term goals.

5. They guide technically and professionally, and teach their protégés skills to promote career and professional development.

6. Mentors protect protégés by limiting exposure to too much risk or responsibility.

7. Mentors provide opportunities to observe their protégé’s work and to share in it.

8. Mentors are role models.

9. Mentors sponsor protégés by written or oral endorsement.

10. Mentor-protégé relationships have a beginning, middle, and end. They may terminate bitterly or amicably, may fitfully resume when needed, or veer off into lifelong friendship.

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