Finding Real Mentors in College
My two favorite times in high school were: first, when I was accepted for the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option the local community college; and second, when I graduated. There is a definite similarity between these two moments: I was blessed with and happy for the opportunity to leave my high school because, frankly, I hated it.
This is not an uncommon experience, I know, and some may go so far as to say they hated everything about high school life: who was embraced, who was ignored, and everything that stemmed from that social hierarchy. I never had a teacher I could say was an inspirational role model for me, nor did I have a strong connection with many of the faculty or staff in high school. In fact, I don’t recall even asking for letters of recommendation from any of my teachers because there was such a lack of connection.
In my first semester at Normandale Community College, I met my intro to psychology professor, in a department that would soon become my home away from home. Both my best friend and I thought it was incredibly weird how “friendly” and “approachable” this professor was—especially given that he was white.
Most of the teachers at my high school were white, and from what I observed, they rarely (if ever) had any conversations with students of color unless they were involved in extracurricular activities—especially sports. So when this professor talked to my best friend, who is Indian, and me like we were the same as the other students, we were genuinely skeptical.
It wasn’t until the third or fourth week of classes that we both started to ask our questions more regularly in-person rather than just over email, which was a bigger deal than it might sound like. Though I often defaulted to email, I really value in-person connections more than virtual ones, and I realized quickly that I learned better when I could bounce ideas around about the topic I had questions about.
As I met more of the psychology department faculty at Normandale, I came to recognize there was something different about the way they interacted with all of their students; they treated me the same as their white students: with respect, genuine care about me as a person, and interest in as well as appreciation for my ideas and experiences. This kind of intentionality helped me feel comfortable approaching them with questions rather than emailing, impersonally, outside of class. We even began having regular conversations about day-to-day life alongside my academic pursuits.
It was easy for me to approach these psychology professors and ask them questions because I felt I was heard, and, although I’m not always good at making eye contact, they still seemed attentively listening through their body language. This level of engagement told me they truly listened to their students. Furthermore—on occasion, and when appropriate—these professors would share from their own personal experiences as a way to build connections with student so that we could find common ground. In other words, they were transparent when they felt they needed to be with all of us.
If the conversation was an ongoing one (which mine often were), some would follow-up about some of the specific things I’d mentioned previously, which illustrated both their integrity and care, showing me how important it was to them to really engage what I was sharing. I remember whenever I had a question about anything in psychology, these professors never took for granted their credentials or expertise, or used them as a means to belittle anyone. Rather, they were genuine in trying to explain concepts or ideas in ways I could understand.
Unlike my high school teachers, my college professors practiced listening, transparency, integrity, care, and expertise in the ways they mentored and taught me. These five principles are the main ingredients, according to The State of Religion & Young People 2020, for creating and embodying the practice of “Relational Authority.” That report states that Relational Authority “ is rooted in relationship and earned, not through credentials or titles, but through practices of sympathetic expertise shaped and offered through shared experience.” In other words, Relational Authority is how authority figures, like a teacher or professor, can create a meaningful relationship with the young people they serve—even if they don’t share the same identities like gender, race, ethnicity, or religion—by humbling themselves in a way that doesn’t only show a sense of humility but also helps the young person see them as both approachable and wise.
The professors I had who practiced Relational Authority allowed me to experience, for the first time, real connection with mentors and teachers. I know that if it weren’t for the characteristics of listening, transparency, integrity, care, and expertise embodied among the psychology faculty at NCC, it would have been difficult to build any future connections with trusted adults. Now, in my final semester of college at Augsburg, I am forever grateful to have been able to meet and connect with professors who respected me and valued all of my identities and interests, helping me navigate college and life as a young adult.
Blog post photo credit: Ifrah Akhter