Fireside Chat: A True Story: How A Mentor Saved the Day

Have you ever thought about why Mentors are so important? As a first-generation college student, I didn’t understand how important it was to have a mentor or several mentors. I was clueless as an undergrad and especially as a grad student.

I think of my mentors as “Learning Coaches”.   They provide a model of “apprentice with” not “apprentice to”.  They help create along with others, a rich and robust intellectual community where the quality of transparency is not strained and learning outcomes are explicit.

Having a mentor is so important because as a mentee we are being prepared as the next generation of thought leaders and independent scholars. Our faculty are preparing us to be critical thinkers – an essential skill for our toolbox that we will carry with us through life.   Our faculty are preparing us to be ‘stewards’ of our disciplines and to expand it for the next generation.

Enhancing success. Faculty mentors really assisted me by providing a cognitive map of my program and the process of doing my thesis and dissertation. They can do the same for you and your capstone project.  Think of a cognitive map as a google map or a gps system that assists you with navigation.

As a first-generation grad student, I was clueless about the cultural and political aspects of the department and my discipline.  My mentors provided guidance for the socialization and acculturation into the department.

I can still hear Dr. Ford (one of mentors) say to me, “Grasso, this is the way it is …” I was having challenges with my major professor and needed to understand the lay of the land. She was great, direct, clear, and I got the message.

In the process of mentoring, our mentors (both formal and informal) as well as our peer mentors can include us.  They can create a rich inclusive community by engaging us and reaching out so we don’t feel isolated and alone.  I found my peer mentors experienced many of the same feelings and things I did.  They had helpful suggestions and strategies that assisted me in navigating hurdles.

Think about all the possible pitfalls, sinkholes, and brick walls you can encounter along the way in grad school.  I know I hit a few.  Having mentors assisted me every time I hit a brick wall or that hurdle I thought I couldn’t get over. Dr. Ford, Dr. Lassiter and others helped me avoid the pitfalls. One even saved the day.

I can remember this as if it were yesterday.  Back then, our prelims or qualifying exam lasted over 5 days.  You didn’t know what question you would get to write on each day.  After the written exam, you had to do an oral defense of the prelim.  It was during the oral defense that my major professor started asking questions unrelated to my exam.  I began to get flustered.  I was about to lose my composure when Dr. Lassiter stepped in and started asking my major professor questions.  Perfect distraction! Perfect time to allow me to catch my breath, breathe, and get my composure back.  Dr. Lassiter wasn’t a formal mentor, more of an informal one and he save the day for me!I passed the exams but not before experiencing extreme undue stress.

Clear expectations would have been great to have from my major professor about the exam process.  That’s what a good mentor or learning coach will do for you.

My informal and peer mentors helped guide me through the dissertation process. What should it look like? How will the process be handled?  Who not to get and who to get on my committee.

Mentors have your best interest at hand.  Their goal for you is to complete your degree.  My goal was to get through, around, over, and under each hurdle and reach my goal – graduate.

On a final note, my experience as a grad student shaped me to be who I am, who I was as Associate Dean of the Graduate School, and Dean of two Graduate Schools. I know from experience how important mentoring was to me.  I am passionate about mentoring such that I made it one of my strategic goals to improve mentoring for grad students; to mentor faculty on how to be better mentors, and to mentor grad students on how to be great mentees and be mentored.

My career path would be different if it weren’t for mentors along the way.  They were the Learning Coaches I needed. My learning outcomes, well I have to say accomplished!

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My experience as the chief academic officer and administrator charged with providing vision and leadership in planning, guiding, and coordinating all aspects of graduate education from admission through graduation at two major research universities provides the foundation for our fireside chats.

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