The Next Generation: Student Successes and Mentorship in Div. 36

Companions on a Journey

Julie Exline, professor at Case Western Reserve University, reflects on the process of mentoring.

By Julie J. Exline, PhD

First, a confession: In recent years, some things have made me uneasy about mentoring. I’m getting to that stage of career where I’m starting to fret about my ability to keep up with the rapidly shifting world of research. Some of the advances in methods and technology are threatening to leave me behind. It seems like so many of the practices that I was taught are now seen as obsolete and in some cases, downright inappropriate.  Insecurities abound: will I still be able to guide, to help, to offer something of value? Will I accidentally mislead someone?

These are all reasonable concerns, I think. But I do find that when I get overly focused on my technical competence, I start to lose the bigger picture of what mentoring is about.
I used to see mentoring mostly as a one-way enterprise, in which mentors are cast in the role of giver: we teach, we guide, we lead. But in my years of mentoring, what I’ve seen over and over is how much I have received from the students and postdocs who have worked with me. They are such wonderful, beautiful people. They have such great ideas. They have so much life. And I’ve been given the remarkable gift of being able to accompany them for a season, for at least a little part of their life’s journey. For a time, we walk together.

Some want to walk close to me; others need a lot of space.

Some want to walk side-by-side for a while then go off on a different path. Or maybe I’m the one who needs to break away, going in a different direction for a while. We both need to trust that we will meet up again soon.

Some really want to run — and fast. They leave me in the dust sometimes, but it’s fun to watch them, shout out a few directives from the sidelines and cheer them on. Others prefer a gentler pace, smelling a few more roses along the way. We have such a good time together, especially if I can slow myself down to notice and enjoy those roses too.

Some make their way steadily along the path. Others make more stops, sometimes punctuated by dramatic, breathless sprints.

And sometimes it’s not time to move at all. We just need to sit down and talk for a while.

Yes, as mentors we need to be able to offer technical guidance. But just as often the more important goals are relational. We’re not just talking about tasks but about what’s going on in people’s lives. Sometimes it’s more important to talk about the challenges, the fears and the dreads, why the work is not getting done, the other things that life is throwing at us. Sometimes I’m trying to give my mentees a shoulder to lean on, but quite often, I must admit that I’m the one who does the leaning. We can offer each other the gift of our presence. And for that I’m very grateful.