5 Characteristics You Probably Didn’t Know to Look for in a Mentor: Introduction

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Dear Dr. S, I am an incoming medical/public health student. I recently read one of your papers. From your faculty profile, I see you’ve pursued a career that integrates many of the things that I want to do! I’d love to meet to explore potential opportunities and discuss any career advice you think would be helpful.


Each year, I get a couple of emails similar to this one from earnest students looking for someone who can help them to advance their careers. Over the past 25 years as a physician, scientist and campus minister, I’ve mentored a fair number of students and learned from many helpful mentors myself. These relationships have meant a lot to me. Good mentoring relationships can be valuable resources. Mentors have an opportunity to share what they’ve learned. In return, grad students bring their own life experience to the relationship. Both people benefit, with a mentor gaining as much from the interaction as a student.

Unfortunately, finding a good mentor isn’t always easy. I regret the times when I felt I had life lessons that could have been helpful to others, but I was not able to share them because the circumstances were not quite right. Sometimes I did not know how to communicate what I knew to a younger generation. Other times I was hesitant to share my experience because I was not sure if a student valued the relationship or took what I had to say seriously.

How can grad students identify good mentors? In this series, we’ll look at 5 characteristics that are useful to look for in a mentor. Keep in mind that it may not be realistic to find a single individual who exhibits all of these characteristics. You might need to look for a group of people—for example, a professor, an older grad student, a pastor or spiritual leader, a retired volunteer serving in his or her community, or a friend or relative—who collectively embody these traits.

Characteristic 1: Someone Who Differs From Your Preconceived Notions

In any major life decision—including finding a mentor—an honest conversation with God is a good place to start. Ask God to help you identify the right person or people to guide you. Pray for discernment to know whether or not someone is a good fit. Remember that you don’t have to be eloquent or theologically sophisticated in your conversations with God. Just be honest and open.

A good principle to realize is that God does not always answer our prayers in the way we expect. An ongoing relationship with God involves more than us coming up with a plan and asking God to endorse it. Share with God your concerns about where you feel you need wisdom, advice and guidance, then trust him with the freedom to surprise you. The person you most need may differ from your preconceived notions of a mentor.

God has acted throughout history in ways that people didn’t expect. In the Bible, when God’s people were oppressed, they prayed for a mighty warrior who could help them throw off the chains of imperial rule. God’s answer was the opposite of a charismatic military leader. In his wisdom, he sent Christ as a helpless baby—born to a poor teenage girl. Jesus was not at all what the people expected. Isaiah tells us:

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem (Isaiah 53:2b-3).

And yet, Jesus was exactly what the people needed.

If you find a mentor who is everything you were looking for, that is great. But there are also times when the mentors we need come from unexpected places. They may not be the most entertaining or captivating public speakers. They may not be perceived as superstars or celebrities in their academic fields, but they still have wisdom and useful life experience to share. Keep an open mind. Take the time to get to know people. Ask for the wisdom to know whether or not someone would make a good mentor. If we don’t have eyes to see, we can sometimes miss a person that God has placed right in front of us.

Stay tuned for 4 more characteristics that are useful to look for in a mentor!

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Scott Santibanez

Tito Scott Santibañez is an adjunct professor at Emory University and Trinity School for Ministry. As a volunteer physician, he has provided medical care for underserved populations for nearly 25 years. He also has a doctorate from seminary.

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