2013 SITE Scholarship Dinner Remarks

First, thank for invitation to join you and congratulations to graduates/scholarship winners and their families and friends. Thanks to SITE for making this investment. There is no shortage of people who will give you advice and the advice that they will give. Are there people in this room who have given you advice?  Maybe as recently as this evening? I’m sure you have some of that advice memorized. See if you can complete these proverbs…

…You already know a lot to help you navigate the challenges and opportunities before you. What can I add to this? I will share some advice with you about advice—where to look for it and how to make the best use of the advice you receive. My specific focus is the kind of advice and counsel we receive in the relationships that we describe as mentoring--I like this particular definition of mentoring advanced by Audrey Murrell (University of Pittsburgh, 2007): “A collaborative relationship between two or more individuals that supports the career and/or personal development throughout one’s career.”

There are many things I like about this definition. Mentoring is collaborative. This relationship is not one-sided, the advice and the growth and development can be reciprocal, and the relationship itself is dynamic and can change over time. It avoids the misconception that mentoring  happens only between an older person to a younger. It highlights the value of mentoring  for personal and career purposes throughout a lifetime. It assumes the possibility of a network of mentoring relationships

It has been said that without a mentor in life, one can easily succumb to folly. Without a mentor in life, one can easily become self-centered, capricious and arrogant. But what is more important to focus on is what happens for us when we engage in mentoring relationships because mentoring matters.

Mentoring relationships take many forms and serve many functions.  Let’s talk about a few, and I invite you to think of the people in your life who have currently mentored you in this way and for you to think about the people in your life you mentor in this way.

Mentoring matters in a variety of ways. . .

  • Counselor—advises concerning problems
  • Guide—helps to steer your path and direction
  • Tutor, teacher—instructs in content or ability
  • Guru—leads with authority
  • Supporter—backs your position as an ally
  • Coach—builds your skills and talents
  • Protector—guards, buffers, and shields you from harm
  • Champion—defends and helps to assure your cause, someone who celebrates your successes
  • Advocate—actively promotes your cause, goes to bat for you
  • Role Model—provides example for the future
  • Sponsor—invests in your success     

As I think about the many individuals in my life with whom I have enjoyed mentoring relationships, I have been fortunate to benefit from mentoring that took on many of the mentoring roles we just considered.

Mrs. Misius—speech teacher and speech/debate team coach who gave me advice upon advice and opportunity upon opportunity. I enrolled in her speech class in my senior year because my mother thought I should have a class in public speaking (she was right and it’s advice I have given many people myself). The feedback and encouragement she gave me helped me blossom as a speaker. She also encouraged me to join the speech team and the debate team, at which I excelled in my senior year. This was the foundation for a lifetime interest in effective communications and serving as a coach of a high school speech team during the first years of my career as an educator.

Dr. Dowie—history professor, chair of the history department, and my employer while I was in college. I was hired to help him get his reading done by reading books and students’ papers on tape so he could listen to them. He had been blinded at age 3 by Scarlet Fever and depended upon Braille and tape recordings to read books and articles. He became a role model for me of how to overcome and be resilient about obstacles and to embrace depending upon another—felt responsible to him to do my very best—and I in turn could count on him throughout his lifetime. Dr. Dowie functioned as a counselor for me on a variety of topics—in my area of study, about my career options, challenges in my other job at the college radio station, advice about more personal topics such as challenges of a long-term, long-distance boyfriend. His influence as a teacher and tutor on my thinking about teaching and teacher-student relationships continues to be present with me.

Dr. Proenza was the president of The University of Akron who hired me to be the Dean of Education at the University in 2000. IT was an unusual move—he chaired the search committee to show the importance of the position to the university and included official from state government with whom a relationship would be helpful—these actions indicated to me that he had instincts that were much like those of two previous mentors. In the interview, I remember talking to him about some of my previous mentors during the time I began to do university level teaching and the dean for whom I had worked at the University of Louisville. I recall him asking me why I spoke about these mentors, and I remember saying that talking about those mentors would help him understand more about my priorities, knowledge, and skills by knowing what and who had shaped them. In short, I understood then that “mentoring matters.” He went on to become a valued mentor for me—during my time as dean, then as he asked me to be his provost and chief operating officer after I had been dean for three years, and then as he advised me about how to be successful in achieving a university presidency of my own. He became a sponsor—that very valuable role of someone who is willing to attach his name to yours, to recommend you, to stake his reputation on my ability to do the job, and to continue to praise and champion my leadership.

A recent article titled “When I hire you, I’m Hiring Your Mentors’ Judgment” notes being able to speak about mentors and their influence helps an employer understand your values and principles in action. Discussing your mentors places your learning and experience in context of a larger community. It illustrates your ability to discern how you process the mentoring and advice you have received and shows an openness on your part to learn from others and to value mentoring—a role you too can provide as an important member of the community.

Even preparing this speech and reflecting on just three of my mentors (all teachers by coincidence) helps me see with new eyes not only what they have done, but what I have learned from them, and how I can be more conscious of their influence on me and seek to be as generous in my relationships with others. At this point in my life I am fortunate to have connections with mentors and with those I mentor.  And you, too, across your lifetime, can build bridges and connections in both directions.

I think it important to say that not all advice is good advice.  Sometimes the pointers we receive are actually out of date, not very practical, not a good fit for who we are or what we want to do, and in some cases actually ill-advised because the individual does not have our best interests at heart. Some caution is advised when taking advice, even in mentoring relationships. Some mentors wrongly want us to imitate them in every word and action, to follow them without question and to turn to them as our sole source of advice, more guru than coach. Other individuals may imply that we are stupid if we don’t do things their way. Advice can be contradictory—think about these two proverbs:

  • The race goes to the swift.
  • Look before you leap.

It’s up to us to discern, to review, to listen, to investigate, and then to decide how we will proceed. 

My best advice and a mantra for me is a time-gaining phrase when I know I need time for discernment. What do I say when I receive advice that I need more time to digest? “I will think about it and get back to you.” If we are fortunate, we have mentors who can help to sort out contradictions, and “useless” from “useful advice.”  And we are fortunate if we also have opportunities to help others do the same.

It is my hope for tonight’s scholarship recipients that you will have many opportunities to be in mentoring relationships that make important human connections across your lifetime.   I truly believe that mentoring matters. There are mentors in this room; each of you has a sponsor in SITE. SITE has invested specifically in each of you with an expectation for your success.   The value of their confidence in you is immeasurable. 

The challenge for each of us is to approach our sponsors, whether it be SITE, or our families, our teachers, our employers, our colleagues-- in a spirit of human connection, to further not only our own development but to further our own commitment to others so that as we have been mentored, we, too, mentor. That is the best advice I can give you.  I wish you continued success.

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