The mentoring concept is not a new idea. In Western history, the mentoring story is rooted in Homer's Odyssey, where Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, is guardian to Telemachus. Modern dictionaries define mentor as "trusted counselor." And a mentor is someone who takes an active interest in shaping and guiding a less experienced person.
The mentoring concept is lauded because individuals who have been effectively mentored tend to achieve their goals more easily. Mentoring is a supportive, trusting relationship between a mentor and the person being mentored (the "mentee"). As an analytical chemist, I think of the relationship between the mentor and mentee as a dynamic equilibrium. Both individuals must be fulfilled in order for the relationship to be successful, and it is especially important the mentee be receptive to the ideas and suggestions given by the mentor.
When starting a mentoring relationship it is very important that the mentee knows that the mentor is truly committed, caring, and concerned for his/her welfare. The key to building such a relationship is mutual trust. The mentor helps the mentee set goals, but she/he also has to be sure that those goals are realistic, concrete, and achievable.
When I was asked to write about how to be an effective mentor, I was reminded of an e-mail that I received last year from an American Chemical Society (ACS) scholar. This young woman told me all about her experience with her mentor and why she thought that mentor was "the best." She said it better than I ever could, and I would like to share her thoughts with you:
The guidance that my mentor gave me played an extremely important role in my development and eventually in my career. She has been the key factor in helping me set the foundations needed to succeed in the chemical sciences field. She has not only been my advisor, she has been my friend. She listens to me without questioning the rationale of my thoughts. She has walked me through all the possible paths that I could take once I finish my undergraduate degree. She has always shown interest in my progress at school and personal life and has encouraged me to do my best in everything I set out to do. She has always taken the time to talk.
Whenever I was challenged by different problems and I had answers, but they seemed unclear, she helped me coordinate my thoughts so that organized methods could solve those problems effectively. She has never given me the answers up front, but she has always given me the tools to find them on my own. She always has time for me and her door is always open. She does not give me facts about life but she teaches me how to approach problems. She is my role model and inspiration to always do my best. Without any second thoughts, I believe that it could have been definitely different if I had not had a mentor like her. I am sure that I would have never applied to a doctoral program. Not only have I applied, but I have been accepted. When I showed her my acceptance letter, I saw her facial expression; she was as happy as my Mom!
In this note, the ACS scholar has enumerated some of the roles and qualities that effective mentors need to assume and to exhibit. In my opinion, the most important role of a mentor is to listen and to do so without being judgmental. They must also be understanding. Because of their age, educational background, position in life, etc., the mentor knows and wants what is best for the mentee. But in the long run, it is the mentee's life. So although a mentor can show a mentee what they believe is the right path, it is up to the mentee to follow that path.
If you have been an effective mentor, you also know when to let go. The time will come when your mentee is ready "to fly" on his/her own. I have a plaque that I keep in my living room with the following saying: "There are two lasting bequests we can give our children--one is roots; the other wings." I believe we mentors can substitute the word "students" for "children."
Lastly, if as a mentor you have tried your best but have been unable to achieve dynamic equilibrium with your mentee, finish the relationship on a positive note anyway. Do not feel that either one of you has been a failure. In every situation there is always something to be learned.
Now that I have given you an idea of how to be an effective mentor, go and give it a try! It is a very rewarding experience!
Zaida C. Morales-Martínez is a senior lecturer in chemistry and the coordinator of Pre-Health Advising at Florida International University in Miami. She is also the mentoring consultant for the ACS Scholars Program and will be honored 15 November 2002 by the American Chemical Society for helping underrepresented students reach their full potential in science. She will receive her award at the ACS Southeast Regional Meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. For further information, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.