The Critical Importance of Mentors in the College Transition

This is a guest blog post from Amanda Payne, a former TBB Program Leader. She led the Global Gap Year program for 2 years and then joined our US staff as our Program Manager.

I struggled in college to find my way — mostly alone, scared, and lost. It’s sad to think that when I graduated I was no closer to finding direction than when I started. After graduation I moved back home and vacillated between following a conventional path supported by my parents that involved a cubicle and something more adventurous that involved taking off to see the world as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was struggling to make this decision when I happened to see my cousin at a family gathering. She whispered the most basic and simple advice when she hugged me goodbye: “Follow your heart.”

It was just the spark I needed though — the approval I was seeking to start forging my own path. And I did forge my own way, but it took wasting my college years. I looked up to my cousin for many reasons, and over time she helped me see myself for who I was, not for who people wanted me to be. She was my first genuine mentor, and without knowing it she guided me to a path that better suited my values and beliefs. I did not feel so alone anymore.

Gap Year Programs MentoringHaving positive adult mentors is important at every phase in life, but it may be the most crucial during the transition to and time in college. Unfortunately, this is a time when positive adult figures are often lacking. Away from home for the first time and questioning authority, it can be a quite natural response for students to shy away from adult relationships. However, this is a critical time of development. It’s an often confusing and scary time when we grapple with forming an adult identity, shaping values, and laying the foundations for our future. There is a lot of pressure and students aren’t always equipped with skills to handle it gracefully. Yet, with the guidance of mentors, navigating this time in life can be extremely exciting, and it can be beneficial in building confidence and finding direction.

Program Leaders for Thinking Beyond Borders serve as teachers, facilitators, guides, nurses and mentors, among many other responsibilities. While all these roles are critical to the success and safety of the students, being a mentor was the most important relationship for me. It was where trust was built, where questioning and self-reflection deepened, where mutuality was emphasized and conditioned notions of authority of teachers broken. Because of this — and because I knew where my students were intellectually, emotionally and socially — I believe deeper and more genuine learning was able to take place. There are many things that set TBB apart from other gap year programs, and I believe the time and intention spent on this mentoring relationship is one of them.

Below is a piece written by TBB alumna, Allison Aaronson now at Tufts University. It’s a reflection on the mentoring relationship and how important it was, and still is, for her. For me, mentoring emerging adults has been incredibly meaningful. For one, I get to be that positive mentor I so desperately needed when I stumbled through college. I feel extremely grateful as an educator to have formed deep bonds with my students that have made a lasting impact on both them and me. Being a mentor has been a constant reminder that learning is a process that requires time and patience. It has taught me to be a better listener, one with an open mind and heart. It has helped me ask better questions, to look at my own beliefs and values with discernment, to continually push myself out of my comfort zone (where so much learning happens), and it has taught me that love is an invaluable part of education.

Allison Aaronson, TBB ’13, Tufts University:

I will start out by saying that I had low expectations of this whole mentor thing. I thought my assigned mentor, Amanda, was great, but I had no intention of opening up to her. Initially viewing her as some sort of authority figure, I was limited by the boundaries I imagined between teachers and friends. I remember one day during orientation when the program leaders were talking to us about health and safety, Amanda said to us, “you’re going to have to get very comfortable talking about your poop.” There is no way I’m telling anyone if I have diarrhea, I thought. Let’s just say I got over that pretty quickly.

In the end, I talked to Amanda about much more than my bowel movements. She broke every convention I associated with teaching, showing me how to be an active participant in my own learning. “I’m not your mentor,” she said during our first check in. “We’re mentos. This is a mutual relationship.” This idea that there is no monopoly on truth followed me throughout the program, making me more open minded about the wisdom of others and granting me more respect for myself.

Amanda celebrated me like a mother, questioned me like a psychologist, motivated me like a teacher, and loved me like a friend. I would like to think that I was the same for her, although maybe without the “mother” part. I realized that I am the kind of person who needs to process things out loud, someone who enjoys the process of reflecting and being asked to dig deeper. I think I would have learned a lot less on TBB had I just been thrown into the world with no one to help me understand my experiences.

Amanda had a question for all of my answers, constantly challenging me to analyze my role in the world without defensiveness. She taught me to seek beauty, both in the world and in myself. Most importantly, she gently unpacked all of the invisible baggage I had not meant to bring on my travels, helping me process these issues and develop a stronger sense of self.

Lastly, my “mento” experienced revolutionized the way I view the process of teaching and learning. I learned that learning is slow and fluid, that it is not a matter of test scores and GPAs but a series of questions. The way in which Amanda taught from a place of loved humanized teachers, allowing me to make more valuable relationships with professors as I move on from TBB.

Though I have written this in the past tense, all of this is still ongoing. Amanda and I continue to be “mentos,” supporting each other as we transition into our current lives.  As with all things TBB, this experience does not end with graduation.

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