July 23, 2018
- Illustrations by Caitlin Alexander
A young man paces the moonlit beach near his island home, an internal struggle evident in his anguished features. He is at a crossroads. The fortunes of many depend on the path he chooses, but his own experience, naturally limited given his youthful age, can offer him little in the way of guidance. The crisis he faces is an attack on the family business. His father, who built an empire with his own hands, has been incapacitated. In his absence, it falls to the young man to save the organization, a task that seems impossible to him. He feels terribly alone.
“Take heart,” says a voice at his shoulder. It is his father’s closest friend and most valued counselor, a person the young man has known his entire life. “You have the courage and the intelligence to win this fight.”
“…When someone resonates with you, you can then see aspects about yourself and the world that you haven’t seen before.”
How will the story end? Knowing nothing of what follows, we already feel hopeful for the worried youth, simply because a trusted, experienced friend has arrived to help. Our hunch is this young man will succeed. His name is Telemachus, and he is the son of Odysseus. In the early pages of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus, missing since the end of the Trojan War, is presumed dead and his son is pitted against a group of brutish men who have overtaken the family’s palace. In the end, with the guidance of Odysseus’ close friend, Telemachus not only thwarts the intentions of the unwelcome guests, but finds his missing father as well.
The family friend who gives Telemachus the advice he needs is named Mentor. Yes, the origin of our modern term for an experienced advisor is a 2,800-year-old epic poem. Mentor sees in Odysseus’ son the talents the young man cannot yet manifest fully, and he has the worldly experience to understand what steps his youthful charge must take to succeed. Most important of all, Mentor sincerely cares for Telemachus. To this day, great mentoring is characterized by these same elements.
In all walks of life and at every stage of personal and professional development, mentorship is an essential catalyst for healthy growth. Like seedlings needing sunlight along with good soil in order to thrive, we all need the wisdom of others as well as our own talents to illuminate life’s pathways. This is especially true today as technological and cultural change empower individuals as never before, but also disrupt traditional relationship building and social norms. Whether the journey is the search for our true potential, or the transition from one stage of life to another, without insightful advice from those we trust, we are often left grasping in the dark.
A Mentor in the President’s Office
As an educator who has focused his career on awakening students to their intellectual and creative potential, President Edward Burger has an innate appreciation of the benefits of mentorship. “Mentorship means finding individuals who resonate with you,” he says. “A mentor is someone who understands you and who can offer objective eyes as you walk down life’s path and make observations and even suggestions as to how to amplify your journey.”
President Burger has daily opportunities to be a mentor to individuals in the campus community, whether students, faculty, or staff. Recognizing the irreplaceable benefits of the process, he has also sought out his own mentors. “Throughout my life,” Burger explains, “I have always looked to others as teachers. I’ve had moments where I really admired what a person was doing and thought that I wanted to emulate some aspect of that individual’s mindset, abilities, and talents. When someone resonates with you, you can then see aspects about yourself and the world that you haven’t seen before.”
In 2008, while he was a Professor of Mathematics, President Burger met former Commissioner of Major League Baseball and President of Columbia Pictures Fay Vincent Jr. at a Florida event. They started talking and right away the two of them felt a connection. “We just resonated,” Burger says. “He showed great interest in me.” Praising Vincent as a great mentor, Burger highlights two deceptively simple traits displayed by his friend: he asks good questions and makes wonderful suggestions. As with Mentor’s counseling of Telemachus, however, Vincent’s mentorship would be incomplete without the crucial element of care. As Burger relates, “He’s not only concerned with my work and vocation, but he genuinely is concerned with me.”
President Burger’s deep and abiding friendship with Fay Vincent shows just how fulfilling mentorship can be for both participants. After all, these are two highly successful individuals with exceptionally busy schedules, yet they set aside time to continue the long-running conversation that is mentoring. As Burger observes, “The relationship between mentors and mentees is a genuine opportunity for growth not just for the mentee but the mentor.” It is a lifelong opportunity, rewarding old as well as young, accomplished as well as novice. “No matter what stage we are in our lives, we should look for an opportunity to be both—to find the people who will resonate with us and to engage in that encouraging connection.”
The friendship that President Burger and Fay Vincent prize today is the result of the careful intentionality present in the best examples of mentoring. Each is grateful for that chance meeting over a decade ago, and for the thoughtful awareness that allowed them to recognize something special in the other. For Fay Vincent’s part, the insight was especially auspicious if not outright prophetic. “During that very first meeting,” Burger recounts with a smile, “he asked me when I was going to be a college president. Fast forward 10 years and here I am.”
A Landscape of Encouragement
The journey of a college education is not simply a year-to-year progression of mastery in a chosen discipline. Fundamentally, the path on which every first-year student embarks is one of becoming. The mentor’s ability to identify and nurture these students’ potential is demonstrated every day at Southwestern University. It can be seen in the classroom, when a professor’s knowing encouragement ignites a student’s passion for a new field of knowledge. It is found all over campus among the steadfast friends who meet here, the ones who don’t hold back when they see an opportunity to help their dear colleague succeed, or to protect them from lessons learned the hard way. Wherever it happens, patient, insightful guidance is indispensable to our students’ higher education experience.
Like all great Southwestern teachers, Professor of Music Kenny Sheppard takes deep care in the development of his students, and he has had a great many to care for. When he retired at the end of this academic year, he capped off 44 years of teaching at SU. At a reception following a special Southwestern University Chorale concert in his honor, Dr. Ann Stutes ’84, Dean of the School of Music at Wayland Baptist University, described her personal growth under Dr. Sheppard’s guidance.
“It has been 34 years since I sang alto and played viola with Dr. Sheppard,” Dr. Stutes related, “Since then, I find that I measure every musical event against what I shared with him here in this special place, both the challenges of the daily storm and stress of being a college student, and the moments of musical glory. Dr. Sheppard, thank you for offering me the invitation to become a better version of myself. Thank you for taking this naive viola player from West Texas and opening the doors to excellence.”
“Thank you for taking this naive viola player from West Texas and opening the doors to excellence.”
A Bridge to the Wider World
The guidance that plays such a key role in the journey of higher education is no less essential to students when they graduate and begin their professional careers. In four years of inquiry and discovery at Southwestern University, they will have mastered the skills of thought and the knowledge base of their fields of study. When they leave Southwestern, they must bring strengths gained in the training ground of the mind into the world of people. A mentor can be a bridge to this world.
Along with vital insights for a young person’s early career choices, a mentor can perceive gaps in their protégé’s practical or communication skills that would be liabilities in a professional setting, and work with them to fill these. Importantly, a mentor can provide a young person with practice in conducting professional relationships, which may lead to connections that can prove invaluable in a budding career.
This introduction to the world after college is an essential stage of every student’s education, but in most cases it doesn’t happen until after graduation. There is a clear need to provide opportunities to form these crucial mentoring relationships during the college experience. The Southwestern University Alumni Network Mentoring Program was created to answer this need.
The Alumni Network Mentoring Program connects Southwestern juniors with several alumni over the course of their junior year. These intentional mentoring connections, based on professional interest, field of study, student organization involvement, or other areas of academic and co-curricular life, follow a structured and purposeful engagement model, and students receive coaching in order to make the most of their interactions. During the sessions, which take place in person or by phone or video chat, alumni share their experiences, answer students’ questions, and discuss professional interests. This distinctive program offers alumni a rare opportunity to impact the professional development of Southwestern students.
Not every connection will take root and grow into a long-term mentorship, but for participating juniors, building the networking and relationship skills they will need in their careers and throughout their lives is unquestionably rewarding.
When Mentor counsels Telemachus in the young man’s moment of need, Homer equips him for the task with more than just the acquired knowledge of his advanced years. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, actually speaks through the older man. While we may not have a goddess to thank for the wisdom of our mentors, the selflessness with which they approach mentoring can seem unworldly in our driven culture. When they take time to understand us deeply and guide us to our best potential, mentors demonstrate a remarkable but decidedly human trait that, if not divine, is unmistakably good.
To find out how you can participate in the Alumni Network Mentoring Program, contact
firstname.lastname@example.org. Chelsey Clammer Darr ’05 contributed to this article.