Somebody Please Help: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About College Mentorship (and a dash more)
By Yebin Won (SFS'22)
Let’s set something straight: there is no one “correct” way to do college. Everyone’s path will be very different, and detours are only natural. That being said, though, mentors will save you hours of having to struggle over problems by yourself. Finding a trusted mentor can also help you decompress (take it from me: I’ve cried in front of professors. More than once), reflect on your needs, and figure out the right scholastic path for you. They may also be great references for you when you apply for internships. In other words, mentors are foundational to navigating college.
The all-virtual Fall 2020 plan has made traditional forms of mentorship-building difficult, but that absolutely doesn’t mean there isn’t room for it! I’ve organized some insights from my time at Georgetown in hopes that it might provide some guidance as you jump into your freshman year.
1. Professors want to get to know you very, very much.
This statement has always been true, but with the immense physical distance that the pandemic has created, this rings more (painfully) true for educators. I know that the feeling is mutual for students, so I encourage you to do what we’ve all become proficient at these past few months: schedule a video call! Be proactive in reaching out to your teachers - they want to get to know you, but there’s just so many of us. In this, if you want to build a relationship, it’s up to you to take that initiative.
What do you talk about at office hours? Well, that really depends. My first office hour with my now-mentor was super casual, and we spent thirty minutes talking about everything under the sun. For others, it felt more like a Q&A session, with me leading the conversation. If it’s your first office hour, I recommend you bring a small list of questions you’d like to ask, and then see how it goes! Questions regarding upcoming assignments/this week’s readings are always a good bet.
SUPER IMPORTANT NOTE: If your first office hour ends up being a bit awkward, don’t worry. I’ve had my share of awkward office hours, and I find that the best way to see if you’d like to build a relationship with that specific professor is to speak with them a few times. Don’t force it if you really don’t feel anything clicking, but be careful not to judge a professor by the first meeting.
2. Don’t rule out the TAs!
Outside of recitations and labs, your TAs are constantly making new, exciting strides for their graduate school research! As such, while they are not on the level of your professors in terms of knowledge and experience, they may have insights that your professors may not have due to the virtue of being a) young, and b) experimenting with new, innovative things. Take advantage of this and ask about their work.
TAs remember more vividly what it’s like to be a student, as many are baby millennials or elder Gen Zs. In this, they’re excellent sources of advice when it comes to academic or academic-personal stuff that you’re either too embarrassed to ask older (read: your parents’ age cohort and up) professors or don’t know if they’ll understand due to generational differences.
Take it from a former TA: COME TO OFFICE HOURS, we want to meet you all! We don’t bite :)
3. Let the blue bird help you
Get a Twitter account and start following your professors, their friends, and their friends’ friends (follow the retweets!!). If you ever want to do a noncommittal deep-dive into your field of interest, Twitter is one of the best ways to start. This is especially relevant given our all-virtual situation!
Cold-call academics! If there’s a professor on Twitter that you find especially inspirational, reach out to them via their faculty email address. Send them a short email to let them know about yourself, why you’re reaching out (e.g. I loved your article/book, found your Twitter threads really informative, etc.), and politely ask if it would be possible to speak with them briefly about their work. Be mindful of their time and be extra-respectful (if they say no, it’s a no), especially considering that you’re not their student, but it never hurts to ask! I’ve actually met some phenomenal mentors through this cold-call method.
4. Peer mentors = CRUCIAL
I cannot stress this enough: your peers - especially those who are older or in your grade - are crucial. Older students will be able to fill you in on little tricks, valuable insider information, emotional support, and real-time insight that only current students have. Your peers can be amazing friends as well as study buddies - as time goes on, they will be the ones that you lean on the most as well as those that you show up for. Friendships are also a form of mentorship!
5. Seek out clubs or centers on campus
There are so many clubs on campus offering pre-professional communities that you can join, which will give you access to older students as well as an alumni base that can serve as your peer mentors. In addition, centers are a GREAT place to find faculty mentors, especially if your major has a lot of students (i.e. me - IPOL is ginormous). Centers often provide you a smaller group of people who are also tied together by their shared interests, so it can be easier to find mentors there. I found my group of mentors primarily through the Center for Jewish Civilization, where I study genocide prevention and far-right extremist groups!
6. Find different mentors for different needs
DROP the notion that there can only be one mentor. Drop it right now. My first mentor at GU once told me that “the” mentor myth is exactly that: a myth. While it’s certainly nice to have a “go-to” professor in your corner, keep in mind that you are a multifaceted and complex individual who needs more than one person to help you to fully address your beautifully three-dimenisonal self. No single mentor can do that for you, so search out different mentors for your different needs (e.g. academic, professional, personal, etc.). You shouldn’t be looking for twenty professor mentors, but also don’t limit yourself to one or two.
By all means seek out professors for academic-specific questions, but also know that they can be a resource for more personal struggles; for example, I often speak to my close professors about the mental health toll of studying extremist groups, and they almost always give me space to vent, seek advice, or just chat.
Cultivate a good professional relationship with your dean/academic advisor. Please. They are there to help you structure the best academic experience, so go to them with all of your questions about course registration.
7. Mentors change over time - and that’s SO normal!
Echoing the sentiments from advice #6, your different needs require different mentors. This is still true when you change over time - whether it be a new academic interest or just life doing its “thing”, your needs will change as you go through college. That’s only normal! With that, if you no longer vibe with your mentor or simply need new mentors to help you fulfill your new needs, accept that you need to seek out other mentors. Stay in touch with your former mentors if possible, but don’t spend too much time fretting over maintaining all of them throughout all four years of undergrad. Not only is that super rare, but it’s also doing you a disservice. Branch out - college is a time for exploration!
8. Always express gratitude
When people carve out time to speak with you, it’s very important that you explicitly acknowledge this. After your meeting, be sure to thank them for their time. If your relationship progresses to a closer mentor-mentee relationship, still remember to thank them for their encouragement, insight, and enthusiasm. Never forget that as it is with any healthy relationship, a good mentor-mentee relationship is fundamentally based on mutual respect and appreciation! Also, who doesn’t love a thank-you note?
9. Be open to finding mentors in the most unexpected places
Mentors, I’ve found, often come from unexpected places. I’ve reached out to a professor I wanted to connect to, only to be referred to someone else and finding incredible mentorship there. I’ve walked into a class thoroughly displeased that I had to take it, but ended up walking out of it with a mentor who would later become my biggest cheerleader. While some came from pretty predictable places (e.g. professors from a class I took), most were anything but. In this, always remain open to reaching out to different people. If you take the initiative and continue to reach out to different people, it’s likely that you’ll find your mentor somewhere, somehow.
10. Be patient
If you don’t find a mentor you really connect after your first semester, congratulations: you’re going through what literally 99% of the GU freshman class goes through. A good mentor-mentee relationship takes real time and effort, so devote freshman year to cultivating relationships that matter to you. Be patient with yourself and your mentors as you do this, and always remain open-minded to all the different ways you can structure your college experience.
Have any lingering questions? Feel free to reach out to the author at yw591 [at] georgetown [dot] edu or connect on Twitter @yebwontwothree.
Yebin Won is a rising junior in the School of Foreign Service studying International Politics (Security Studies) and working towards a certificate in Jewish Civilization. When she isn’t holed up in Lau (R.I.P.) studying far-right extremists and Nazi racial politics, you can find her cooking pasta, buying overpriced coffee, or practicing the perfect cat eye for her hooded eyes.