Experiences Can Create Mentoring Opportunities

March 3, 2009 at 8:27 PM

This post is the third in a series co-authored by Jim and students.  We wanted to give a flavor of what it is like to think with students as well as just have them take and give feedback on programs.  Not only do we feel it is necessary in a Web 2.0 world of social networking software, it is also fun and an opportunity to learn.

– Shwen and Jim

Experiences Can Create Mentoring Opportunities

Elena Fradkov, sophomore at Harvard University, and
Jim Stellar, Professor and past Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences
at Northeastern University

Intergenerational transfer of knowledge is the goal of education. But in experiential education the participants often meet as people. When the age/experience difference is factored into the encounter, depending of course on the personalities involved, sometimes a mentoring relationship develops. This is a story of such a chance encounter that so developed and led to a series of steps neither fully anticipated ending with the high school student getting into Harvard University and establishing herself in an immunology laboratory as an undergraduate researcher. We offer it as a joint commentary on mentoring and then pick apart where we feel the process departed from simple information transfer or basic advising. Elena’s comments are in bold blue, Jim’s are in bold green, and the joint commentary in non-bold black like this section. Elena begins in the winter of 2004 at a regional science fair held in the gymnasium of Northeastern University where Jim was one of the judges and, at that time, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

….Under the glare of the florescent lighting in the massive NEU gymnasium, my hands were pointing out a figure on my black poster. My new suit felt tight, and the lanyard with the laminated nametag swung from my neck. “Hi my name is Elena and my project is called….” The judge looked at my face and back at the poster, asked me questions and moved on…

There were so many students to see. I had a habit of spending too much time trying to figure out what they were doing. I was afraid I would not finish judging, and I did not want to disappoint the organizers. Yet the students were compelling in their eagerness and some of the projects were good. Some were not. I suspected some had more help than others.

This was my first city science fair experience, I will never forget it, nor the project that I had worked on. I have enjoyed biology and chemistry ever since I started studying them in school. I thought that actual lab work could be fascinating, if I could ever try it out. Luckily my sophomore year the science department decided to create a program that allowed students like me to work with a mentor, and to perform a project that we would not be able to do without the supplies or assistance. My mentor had me read scientific papers and plan out a true experiment that I later performed. Scientific experiments were no longer a fuzzy dream, but were rather tangible, complicated, and fun.

I always had undergraduate students in my neuroscience research laboratory. Who can tell ages? To me in my late 50s, these high school students could be our freshman. As Dean, I hoped some of the good ones would apply. In the lab, I prided myself on many of my undergraduates acting more like graduate students and getting into ivy-league medical schools or very strong Ph.D. programs that gave them full support. Some of these high school students seemed like some of my good freshman, a comparison reinforced by the fact that a few of them were also judging the science fair.

… As I was finishing speaking to the judge, I was approached by another, who had just finished assessing his last student’s project. He introduced himself as Jim Stellar, a Neuroscientist and the Dean of Arts and Sciences at NEU. He said that he was now walking around and looking at some of projects that he was not assigned to judge. We spoke about research, science, my project and those of the two students whose posters were adjacent to mine. I told him that I would like to continue doing research in a laboratory over the summer….

This was it. Here was a student who had done in high school a project that I would have done with my undergraduates and presented as a poster just like this at a professional meeting. I had seen others from the same high school like it. On this one I could not restrain myself and started to talk to her both to find out what happened and to see if I could help her take her work to the next level.

Later Dean Stellar and some of his undergraduates who were also judges met with several of the students from the fair as well as me. He helped me find a lab to do immunological research, which not only taught me techniques such as animal procedures, cell cultures, etc, but also let me see how an academic lab in immunology worked and how interesting it could be. There was a conglomerate of grad students, post-docs and professors in this lab. I learned the basics of immunology and performed my own experiment that I later presented at the following science fair. Dean Stellar and I continued to speak, and discuss science, research, and life in general. The advice and help that he had given me, a young highschooler, had proven to be invaluable in my decision to pursue science in college, and in my desire to continue doing research.

In truth, if felt like I did very little. A growing intergenerational friendship made it easy to talk and I enjoyed learning some immunology as well as seeing her progress. I became convinced that she was very good, even by the excellent standards of her high school. I took particular care to write a recommendation for college. The other professor wrote as well. I was excited to see her succeed at Harvard, which I believed was the best place for her. We continue to meet every 6 months or so to discuss how things are going and her plans for the future.

One question is whether the personal connection is necessary … and we think it is … for advising to become mentoring. We think that a mentor is best thought of as an advisor who also thinks he is your uncle or she is your aunt. Another question is whether it is important for the convening to take place over something experiential where the rules are less clear and the student, at least, has put themselves out there in a way not as typical as in a classroom. Of course, we do know that mentors can come out of the classroom too.

What do you readers think?

The Music of Thought and Emotion: clinical interaction in social work

5 Responses to “Experiences Can Create Mentoring Opportunities”

  1. Kristen says:

    In my experience, a main distinction between adivising and mentoring is the trust involved. When I think of an advisor, I think of meetings to organize a class schedule, or internships to consider for certain career paths. When I reflect on mentorship, it transcends the black and white and takes into account our personal story, passions, etc and to get to that point with an advisor, personal connection is required. Personal connection provides trust, allows us to be open about who we are, and form a meaningful relationship that supersedes the confines of advising. Perhaps because I am a product of Northeastern, all my mentors have come out of experiential education — through co-op, studying abroad, and pursuing undergrad research. One of my mentors came out of the classroom, but we did not form that relationship based on the classroom material. So for me, convening where the rules are less clear was critical to mentorship; I put myself out there, and relied on a common interest with my mentor to guide me, and that gave us room to know each other, to care and work toward the common cause.

  2. Jim Stellar says:

    Thanks for your comment. I often tell my students that a mentor is like an advisor who thinks he is your uncle or she is your aunt. That extra dimension of connection not only helps the information flow between the mentor and mentee, but it also creates a kind of inspiration (or passion as you say) for both parties. It is a human connection, not just a professional association. Sometimes these relationships even continue after the goal is reached. Elena and I have remained friends these last few years she has been at Harvard and even get together a few times a year across town to catch up. I would be interested in hearing from any other readers as to whether they think this family analogy works.

  3. science fair projects says:

    Thanks for sharing your research and insights into education. It’s fun to read informative posts which have been simplified for the average person.

  4. Vanessa says:

    This is an older post, sorry for the delayed comment but something just sprang to my mind. To answer your main question Jim, a personal connection IS necessary both between the mentor/advisor and the student AS WELL AS the student and the experience/knowledge they are gaining. There really is a kind of mental appraisal that goes on during a mentorship that proves beneficial. This actually reminds me of some studies that Judy and Tom Boone among others have done on physician-patient relationships. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that physicians, pharmacists, etc with higher nonverbal sensitivity levels are rated as being more efficient, personable, and effective by their patients. Clearly, the patient-doctor relationship parallels the student-teacher one. Maybe nonverbal communication is an area where such relationships are strengthened… and become “important” so to speak. Nonverbal communication is likened to experiential education because it is indirect and unconscious. Both experiential ed. and nonverbal communication differ greatly from “academic learning” and verbal communication, which are arguably the more direct lines of behavior. I think nonverbal cues may play a huge role in this connection- and is other lobe related!!!

  5. Jim Stellar says:

    I think this is a great comment, and I agree. The parallel seems strong between teachers and physicians (or other health care providers) in the role of nonverbal communication.
    Let me push one step farther to mention the decisions we may make in our limbic system (the other lobe), taking the trust and inspiration of the mentor into our choies about a field. How many of us work in a field that was our mentors? Of course, it does not always have to work that way. For example, Elena from the orginal blog did not enter my field of neuroscience, and she had multiple mentors. Then let me push another step farther and suggest that our direct experience with that field also feeds these same circuits and universities ought to be setting up such experiences for their students. Working in a lab is only one of them.

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