How Having Mentor-Mentee Relationships with Professors Helped Me in College

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A picture of the author with her professor and some friends.
Inef (blue shirt and glasses) is pictured here with her friends and one of her mentors in college, Dr. Jinhua Li, Assistant Professor in the Asian Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies in University of North Carolina Asheville.

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Throughout life, there are many people who can fill the role of a mentor for us. Those people can be anyone, be it a friend, an older student in our university, or even a professor. I have had several amazing professors at the University of North Carolina Asheville who I have come to respect throughout my undergraduate years. Some of my professors were awesome because they went the extra length to make sure I did everything I could to be successful in their classes, while still others were wonderful because they showed me how fun an interdisciplinary approach to even the most traditional fields of study can be. This is a story of why I believe cultivating a mentor-mentee relationship in our lives, be it in academic context or in professional settings, can be beneficial for us down the road. Without further ado, let’s review the reasons one by one.

Reason #1: Mentors are the ones who can encourage you to be honest with your feelings when you have been lying to yourself

During a semester in my second year of college, I was struggling with the difficulties of transitioning to a new city where I knew practically no one. I could be fine during the daytime and be a big crybaby at night. Fortunately, my French professor saw through my façade and, when we were alone after a couple hours of grammar routine, very gently asked me what she could do to help me stay strong and complete my foreign language requirement. Naturally, I tried to keep my walls built high and refused to open up, but she calmly sat next to me and said, “It is not healthy to deceive yourself. You can fool your brain, but your heart will sense you are being unfaithful to yourself.” I did not instantly go seek a counselor, nor did I feel much better right away, but at that moment I understood that a good mentor is not just a person who teaches you the things they have a degree in. A mentor is also someone who will tell you outright, without sugarcoating anything, when they have a concern about you.

Two people using a laptop
Mentors with the right qualifications and experience can guide their mentees in achieving what seems impossible.
Image credits: John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Reason #2: Mentors can convince you to go the distance

Several months before my third year of college, I faced a dilemma of whether to take a class in something that was easy yet boring or something that was difficult yet rewarding—more specifically, I was confused of whether to take a course on renewable energy that was mostly lectures or a class where I had to go outdoors for every laboratory session (no matter rain or shine) and learn to write formal scientific reports. The thought of falling asleep in a big auditorium was unappealing, but the thought of having to memorize the characteristics of tree leaves was dreadful. However, after talking with my Ecology and Plant Biology professor about the options available to me and what I would get myself into with each choice, I decided to try the harder path—not because it would look impressive, but because it aligned best with my desire to be more adventurous and experiment with how far I could grow within the span of a semester. That was one of the benefits of having a mentor. With a mentor by your side, you would always have someone to guide you as you make choices that will impact you in the long run.

Reason #3: Mentors can help you overcome impostor syndrome

I used to be fearful of classes that utilize critical thinking skills—how could I be smart enough, eloquent enough, or convey my messages coherently enough when the one tasked with grading me was someone with a PhD in linguistics who mastered the art of persuasion? I had this irrational belief that someone who already attained their Doctorate’s degree must be cocky and pretentious, but my English professor was actually empathetic and was not dismissive of my nervousness. Yes, he occasionally went on a rant about improper use of comma splices, dangling modifier, or run-off sentences, but he would do so while explaining why such errors would distract us from enjoying an otherwise beautifully written composition. See, he was not malicious nor did he had any intention to flaunt what a genius he was—he just wanted his students to be able to use proper English.

When I went to his office hours to complain about feeling incompetent (you know that feeling when everything you do seems wrong), he told me “I am glad that you communicate openly with me. Don’t worry that I have bad opinions about you. I don’t. If I comment on your mistakes, it is because I know you can improve your essays, not because I hate what you write.” It was reassuring to know he cared—that was what I needed to bounce back from a mild case of low self-esteem. Great mentors, in my opinion, are those with the ability to make their mentees realize that there is no such thing as failure—we only fail if we never even try in the first place!

A board on a table next to a pot of indoor plants. The board says "difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations."
Dedicated mentors can become your key toward reaching your goals.
Image credit: Nik from Unsplash

Reason #4: Good mentors will call you out when you are out of line

My Humanities professor once was very angry when his whole class totally ignored his instruction to read a book before an important test and ended up flunking the pop quiz. He sent everyone a furious email saying, more or less, “You are no longer in high school! You are in college! You are an adult and it is time you learn about big responsibilities. If you have extenuating circumstances, you should have spoken to me beforehand. Do you want to fail?”

I was mad at him when I read the e-mail because I thought he was mean, harsh, condescending, and rude. However, when I had the time to cool my head and re-read the email, I started to see that was not the case. He was not being demanding or being unreasonable, he was shouting a wakeup call! Students’ main job is to excel in their studies and this particular professor was right in reminding everyone to do their best.

Reason #5: Mentors can influence you to become a better version of yourself

By now you might wonder, “What is your point? You are just listing random experiences with random professors!” Yeah, I am. But I am also giving examples of how, no matter their flaws or shortcomings, at the end of the day mentors are those pivotal people who shape us into the individuals we are today.
If my French professor did not reach out and offer to listen to my problems patiently, would I have found the strength to finish her class? If my Ecology professor did not take his time to advise me when I needed to get beyond my hesitation to sign up for a challenging, experiential class about the environment, would I have even considered enrolling in something new and different? If my English professor was too scared to criticize my sentence structure, would my English improve? If my Humanities professor was not tough on his students, would the students learn to be active participants and contributors? We have to remember that even the most intimidating mentors have their mentees’ interests in mind and just want to see the mentees succeed.

A white board on a wooden table. The board says "you got this."
Good mentors are people who never gets tired of motivating their mentees. Image credit: Prateek Katyal from Unsplash

Having a mentor is a privilege and if you ever have the chance to develop a mentor-mentee relationship, you should definitely take it. Not only would a mentor coach you and make it easier for you to define your own success, they can also boost your self-confidence. I am grateful for the many mentors I have encountered throughout my educational journey and I encourage you to seek out opportunities to find your own mentors.

This year, just like the previous few years, Indonesia Mengglobal is once again opening its annual flagship Mentorship program. Application is open until May 9th 2021, both for current graduate students or alumni who would like to help more young Indonesian study abroad in world top universities and also for prospective students who are eager to pursue graduate studies and create their study plans yet need more guidance from those with more experience. Considering how mentorship can change the lives of both the mentors and the mentees for the better, it couldn’t hurt to try and send your applications!

An arrow on the wall with a spray-painted sentence that says "Yeah, that way."
When you have a mentor, you have someone who guides you and show you the right way in achieving your dreams.
Image credit: unsplash

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