Have you had a mentor who influenced your life?

I’ve had quite a few, some through formal mentorship programs, but most have happened organically with a friend or colleague I respect who shares their experience and advice with me and acts as a sounding board when I need it. I consider my fellow writing group members mentors who have helped me through some of my biggest challenges in my writing and in my personal life. I consider the college professor I keep in touch with an important mentor in my life, as well as family friends who have been there for me through academic, professional, and personal challenges. Many educational and leadership programs now recognize the importance of having a support system and encourage – or even require – a mentorship. So what is a mentor, and what exactly do they do?

A mentor is defined as “a trusted counselor or guide.” There are professional mentors, ie. someone further along in their career who shows you the way; peer mentors, ie. someone your age or education/professional level who has been through an experience you’re going through, and is there to support you when you need to talk or have an issue; and youth mentors, where an adult or teenager spends time with a younger person. Mentoring.org says “Mentoring, at its core, guarantees young people that there is someone who cares about them, assures them they are not alone in dealing with day-to-day challenges, and makes them feel like they matter. Research confirms that quality mentoring relationships have powerful positive effects on young people in a variety of personal, academic, and professional situations. Ultimately, mentoring connects a young person to personal growth and development, and social and economic opportunity.” 

The Mentoring Effect (a 2014 report) found that “Young adults who face an opportunity gap but have a mentor are 55% more likely to be enrolled in college than those who did not have a mentor.” That means, more than half of the young people surveyed became more likely to succeed academically and have greater professional opportunities solely because they had a mentor to guide and encourage them. The Role of Risk (2013) adds that “In addition to better school attendance and a better chance of going on to higher education, mentored youth maintain better attitudes toward school.” The mentorship didn’t change their educational experience or opportunities (for the most part), but the positive presence of an adult or person older than them changed young people’s perspectives on their education. That’s extremely encouraging at a time when so many public schools face stagnant or declining budgets, personnel, and resources, and schools all over the country – and the world – are stretched thin. It’s certainly not a silver bullet, but what if all students at risk of falling behind had a one-on-one mentor who cared about them, checked in on their progress, and was available to talk if they had issues, someone who was a positive influence in their life? How could that benefit them as people and students?

When a former writing student of mine (who I had taught at the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont) – let’s call him K – asked me to mentor him for his high school senior project, I was touched, and just a little bit hesitant. Touched that he had valued our working relationship and benefitted from my teaching in some way, and wanted to continue that relationship. Hesitant because I wanted to know what are the expectations of a mentor? Do I need to be well-versed in the subject matter of his project; do I need to be “an expert?” Can I give enough of my time and energy to be a helpful, effective mentor through this process? He wanted to write a play, an endeavor I had never undertaken. I write stories, poems, and essays, have read and seen and performed in plays, can certainly speak to dialogue, exposition, and movement: was that enough? I was assured the role of the mentor in this context was to be someone to bounce ideas off of and offer encouragement and support. That I was more than happy to do.

Throughout the schoolyear, I checked in with K to see how his play was progressing, listen to his challenges and try to gently guide him or offer ideas. We had quite a few Skype and phone calls, email conversations, and I read his progressing work whenever he asked me to, usually when he was stuck or wanted to see if something was working the way he’d hoped. Most of the time, I felt my role was really just to be there to encourage him, suggest a different approach when he felt frustrated, and to share my experience and challenges as a writer. I’ve found that, no matter what your level as a writer (and, I suppose, an artist of any stripe) having a sounding board of trusted readers to share their feedback on your work, motivate you when you need it, and talk through struggles with you is vital. That’s why the Bennington Writing Seminars MFA program in which I am currently enrolled assigns each first-term student a mentor to check in, see how things are going and whether you have any questions, to offer support when you need it. Mentors play an important role in all stages of our lives.

One conversation with K that sticks out for me came on a day where I’d been struggling to find a satisfying resolution for a scene I was writing. It was due the following day, and I felt totally stuck. I’d worked it and reworked it to death, and that final page still just wasn’t quite right. I’d been staring at the same page on my computer all day, adding, deleting, moving things around. When the phone rang, I actually said “Thank God” aloud, grateful for the distraction. It was K in his own state of frustration, unsure of where he wanted his scene to go next. Instead of pretending to have all the answers (which, let me be clear – I do not), I shared my own writing challenges with him. We talked about how writing is hard, how all writers come up against these decisions and can tear our hair out over a single sentence, how it never gets easy but we work through it because it’s something we both love. If there’s one thing he took away from our time working together this year, I hope it is a little more patience with himself, as a writer and as a person, the assurance that all writers work through many drafts and frustrations, that it never just flows out perfectly on the page and you have to work at it, to keep going, even when it’s hard. And he did. I hope that having a voice on the other end of the line telling him to just get something down, to push through the work, helped motivate him. I know checking in with my writing friends, many of whom I consider to be mentors in my own work, always inspires me. I am fortunate enough to have a trusted group of writer friends, which has grown since enrolling in an MFA program, to share triumphs and struggles with, to shrug off rejections and celebrate successes, to remind me not of what feels insurmountable in my work but what is working well, and to keep going.

Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing K’s play performed in front of an audience for his senior project presentation. As I was confident would happen all along, all of his ideas and work had come together to create an intelligent, witty, hilarious, nuanced, and very-well-received play. I felt the deepest honor at having played my small role in helping encourage its creation, and felt infinitely proud of the student I had seen work diligently throughout the year. I was even more touched to have him and his family thank me, and to hear that I had been a positive role model and presence in his life. His mother told me that he had always walked away from our conversations more confident and motivated to get to work. That was so meaningful to me, an even greater gift than the flowers and coffee shop gift certificate he presented me with (and for anyone who knows my love of coffee, that’s saying something).

In a heart-warming email K sent me after the presentation, he said “It means the world that you could help!

This spring, CLiF awarded an At-Risk Children grant to the DREAM Mentoring Program, which partners college students with children who live in affordable housing neighborhoods, in White River Junction, VT. The grant provided an on-site library for mentors and mentees to read together, as well as a fun storytelling presentation and book giveaway last week (pictured above is a DREAM mentor and mentee partnership with new books they’re excited to read together). College students and their young mentees learned about ways to make reading together fun and picked out two new books to keep, which they can enjoy during their time together. We were proud to support this mentoring program, as we know first-hand what a difference mentors can make.

Have you had a powerful mentorship experience, either as a mentor, mentee, or both? Please share your story!

Are you interested in becoming a mentor? If you’re in Vermont, check out Mobius Mentoring Database for opportunities and trainings near you. If you’re in New Hampshire, the Friends Program has a ton of great mentoring programs! If you’re elsewhere in the U.S., the Mentor Network has a lot of opportunities in almost every state to mentor youth, senior citizens, and both youth and adults with disabilities. Get involved – it could change someone’s life, and maybe even your own.

Erika Nichols-Frazer is CLiF’s Communications Manager, as well as a writer and current fiction student at Bennington Writing Seminars’ MFA Program. She has taught fiction and poetry, and her work has appeared in Runaway Parade, Haggard & Halloo, Please Do Not Remove: A Collection Celebrating Literature and Libraries, and elsewhere. She lives in Waitsfield, VT with her husband, dogs, and chickens.

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