Kateri Collins has been sharing her experiences preparing for graduate school with ESN this year. Now that she has started her program, she explores her stories of finding mentoring and offers tips. Check out Kateri’s other pieces: the story of her graduate school search and a reflection on inhabiting transitional time well. Image: Painting by Kateri Collins.
Having a mentor was a relationship I always desired, and I admired those who had mentors. I saw how much a mentor impacted an individual’s life and I desired that for myself. Three years ago, I had no idea how to obtain a mentor or how you would go about finding one. Through God’s grace, I’ve actually found three mentors since then in different ways. My first mentoring relationship developed naturally, my second mentor was assigned to me through a mentorship program, and my third mentor approached me about mentorship.
My first mentor, who I found in my last year of undergrad, had been tremendous in my final year of undergrad, as well as when I was pursuing going to graduate school, and remains a wonderful presence now that I am in graduate school. In the fall of 2013, she was a new faculty member to the school and she was my major thesis capstone professor. I believe my mentor was drawn to me and I was also drawn to her because I valued academic excellence as well as writing and research as much as she did. Also, we were both minorities on campus. My mentor was a challenging professor and demanded a lot of her students in class, but I appreciated that because she stretched us to a whole new level of learning and demanded excellence of us. Though she challenged us greatly, she always made herself available for help if we needed it. She was extremely tough, but her desire was always to see us succeed. I highly respected her teaching style and also respected her as a person in general.
Since she saw talent in my writing and research, she helped me often to develop and improve my work. She allowed me to showcase my talent by inviting me to present my work at Lesley University Community Scholars Day in 2014, where I gave a presentation on my research. She also nominated my capstone thesis for an award. During the semester I was taking her class I had a medical emergency. Though I was not required to come to class due to my medical issues, I showed up to every class anyway. She told me and my advisor that she was very impressed that I showed up to every class though it was not required, and she saw how I was committed to learning.
Since we were both minorities on campus we often had conversations about the lack of diversity and about systemic racism within the structure of academia in general. We were able to talk about sensitive issues in a nonjudgmental space and allow each other to hear our voices and concerns.
One way that we continued to develop our mentorship relationship after I graduated is that we tried to meet once a month to check in, whether that was for coffee or lunch. Not only did she ask about my graduate school pursuits, but she was interested in knowing about how my personal life was going and my health, since I have had issues with my health for a while. I was the one who usually initiated the meetings. I would contact her and ask her when it would be best to meet and she would make time for me.
When it came time for me to apply to graduate school she not only wrote me a recommendation, but also looked over my personal statement and gave me feedback to make it better. The feedback she gave me was specific to the school as there was a part in the statement that was sensitive and could possibly make people uncomfortable. She gave me suggestions on how to reframe the information in a way that would avoid offending the admissions committee. Her feedback was extremely helpful because I was still able to talk about the sensitive topic, but was able to say it in a way that I did not have to compromise the importance of the information.
Once I got accepted into graduate school, she gave me advice on how to survive school and various tips on how to do the reading since there is an enormous amount of reading to complete. Now that I am in the thick of graduate school, she is highly encouraging me to publish papers and has offered to read the pieces and provide feedback on them.
In the last three years there are some valuable lessons I learned about finding this particular mentor and developing this mentorship relationship. I learned that if I did my best in the classroom and in my case still showed up to class during medical hardship (though that may not be possible/necessary in all cases), the professor noticed. Also committing yourself to learning and academic excellence goes beyond personal achievement and goals; it portrayed a favorable image that meant my professor was willing to take me on to mentor me. Sometimes your particular actions you think are normal for you, might stand out to others and get you noticed. I also learned that a mentorship relationship is like any relationship. Though she mentors me, I also care about her academic endeavors and personal life. It goes a long way to ask your mentor how their classes are going, how are their research pursuits are going, and about their personal life (to the degree that is appropriate in a particular mentoring relationship). Like any relationship, there has to be participation on both sides.
My second mentor was assigned to me. I am a volunteer for InterVarsity’s Black Scholars and Professionals (BSAP) and within BSAP there is a women’s fellowship that I participate in. The Associate Regional Director of BSAP in the Northeast, Dr. Alice Brown-Collins, created a mentorship program for women in the fellowship in 2015 that would pair the women up with other Christian women in their current field or field of interest. At the time I was seriously thinking about applying to grad school for public health, but did not know much about the field or where my interests would fall within public health (as there are many entities in public health). I was assigned a wonderful woman of God who had a doctorate in public health, worked for the CDC, and had been in the field of public health for many years. Learning about her educational background, where she worked, and her knowledge of the field, I was extremely excited to be working with her as well as learning from her.
Part of the mentorship included phone conversations twice a month that included these elements: prayer, talking about my research interest, the mentor helping me narrow down what part of the field would be the best fit, the mentor offering reading suggestions about the field, learning about prominent people in the field, and discussing the administrative aspects of the application process. During this whole process I felt extremely stressed, confused, and not at peace with the process. One of the great things about this process is that my mentor prayed a lot for me, we prayed together, and I prayed about the process on my own. I found this mentorship crucial because I found out this was not the right field for me to go into and without this mentorship I might have gone into a field I knew little about, one that was not my calling, or a good fit.
In this particular relationship, my mentor actually ended the mentorship relationship because she personally felt that I was not ready for graduate school and could not handle the work or stress of a program. Though that was her personal opinion I knew God was calling me to go to graduate school and that public health just wasn’t the right field. After praying and thinking, I realized that counseling was the better fit for me, but specifically specializing in expressive art therapy. Once I decided to apply for expressive art therapy, the stress went away: I no longer was confused, I was at complete peace, and I was very excited. Everything fell into place because God called me to the expressive art therapy program whereas I was not called to the public health program, which is why I was not at peace and it was unsettling in my spirit.
Though this particular mentorship relationship ended with us going separate ways, I was grateful for this mentor. I do believe as a Christian, at some point it is important to have a Christian mentor. A Christian mentor can help in ways that a non-Christian cannot, such as to pray with you or pray for you, help you grow spiritually, and help discern things in your life. If you are looking for a Christian mentor, possible places to look are at your church, fellowship, or other Christian organizations to see if they offer mentorship. Mentoring relationships are good for growing in your various passions, but at the same time they might encourage you to change directions or pursue other plans, and that is a good thing too.
I am now in graduate school and my third mentor actually approached me and told me she wanted to mentor me. This was very exciting because she is a core faculty member in my department as well as a person of color, which is great considering my department and school in general lack ethnic and racial diversity. Why did this faculty member choose to mentor me? I am not quite sure, but maybe it was because I was interested in learning about cultural sensitivity in expressive art therapy or because she saw talent in my writing.
This faculty member was present at my group interview and she made herself available to have private conversations about cultural sensitivity in expressive art therapy if we wanted to speak with her. I did approach her about my interest and followed up with her through email. Though we never met in person before school started, she happened to be the professor who would be reading the papers I wrote during orientation. Her feedback was that I was an excellent writer and she particularly liked my writing style. When we did meet in person, that is when she offered to mentor me and said she could be a person I could debrief with about sensitive topics that came up in class. Though she said I was an excellent writer, she wanted me to push myself to be an even better writer. As we talked and went through my paper she gave me feedback and tips on how to improve. I could have taken this as personal criticism, but I was excited and welcomed the constructive criticism as I personally want to grow as a writer and felt honored she took the time to show me how to refine my writing.
So I guess the real question is how do I get a mentor? I don’t think there is a right or wrong way, but what I can say is that if there is someone you are interested in being mentored by, begin having a relationship with them, and show them how committed you are to your work or career field. Begin to ask questions of them and show them you are also interested in them as a person and their work as well. Also pray about a mentor coming into your life. God might give you a surprise as he did for me, and someone might approach you to mentor you. Also don’t be afraid to ask someone to mentor you because if you don’t ask, you never know!