Academics → Mentoring Award

Dr. Gillian Lord
Associate Professor
UF Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies
2011-2012 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.”

John C. Crosby (1959-1943)

I don’t think, when I began my life as an academic, that I could have put into words – much less coherent thoughts — what I believed a mentor should be. I had some wonderful, supportive professors in graduate school, but none I would call a true mentor… So I suppose I knew what it was not, but explaining what a mentor is is undoubtedly more difficult. And at this point in my academic career, I would like to say that I have crafted my mentoring style carefully by considering all the things I want to be for my students, but that would be untrue. I realize that I do most definitely have a style of advising and leadership, but it is only in retrospect that I am able to identify it.

Mentoring graduate students involves teaching, counseling and supporting. Or, as the John Crosby quotation above says, I offer a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a motivating push in the right direction. So much of what I do in any given day is, in some way, a piece in the mentoring puzzle. In classes and workshops, I share my knowledge with students. I give them skills and offer them my perspectives on theoretical, critical or empirical issues. In meetings and advising sessions I offer suggestions on career-related choices. I share my own experiences to serve as a guide. I listen to their needs and concerns. I joke around about always having a box of tissues in my office — but it’s true. I remember the trials and tribulations of graduate school very clearly, and I know that sometimes you just need to let all that emotion out. Being there for that is part of mentoring too.

And every step of the way I provide support for my students, teaching them to make their own well-informed decisions and helping them to become independent and responsible academics. Sometimes I provide this support through listening and empathizing, other times it’s by offering advice or an anecdote.

Through it all, though, I am honest with myself and with my students. If I made a mistake somewhere, I tell them. (What better learning experience is there?) If I disagree with something they propose, I tell them. If I believe they are not working to their full potential, I tell them. And if I think they are working to their full
potential and that isn’t good enough, I have to tell them that too. I have had some
uncomfortable conversations with students at times, but I think those conversations have made us — both them and me — stronger in the long run. I strive to serve as a valuable role model to them, by living by the same principles I expect them to uphold, and that means both the good and the bad, the easy and the challenging.

Perhaps more important than I these things I offer my students, though, are the things I don’t offer. I don’t solve their problems for them. I don’t write their chapters or articles for them. I don’t make their decisions for them. Even if that means that I also have to watch them make mistakes. A colleague remarked once that our students would go out into the academic world with our names on their dissertations, and asked if I didn’t intervene to make sure their product was perfect, wasn’t I worried about my own scholarly reputation?

It gave me pause, I admit. Of course I want them to go on and bring recognition and praise to UF. But honestly, I don’t think a student with a perfect dissertation necessarily reflects well on me. A student with a strong academic background, who is capable of conceiving of, designing and implementing her own research plans, who stands on her own and defends her beliefs and opinions, and who contributes actively to our profession not just in research but in teaching and service… now that is the student I want my reputation to be built upon. I think that my job in helping my students achieve those goals is to give precisely what Crosby said: a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push when they need it. The rest is — and always has been — up to them.

And, I’m pleased to report, that they have made me proud. Very proud. And the kind words they offer me, during and after their time here, lead me to believe that I have, in fact, stumbled upon an effective mentoring strategy. I have sprinkled excerpts from some recent emails from present and past students throughout this statement, not to detract from my own words but to enhance them. My strategies and my successes as a mentor would not be possible without these students, and my words of advice and encouragement to them are meaningless without the words of encouragement and gratitude they give back to me.

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