Eight Lessons I have learned as a mentor

Mentees, Lesley Bonyo and Amisa Mohamed, during KamiLimu’s graduation ceremony in October 2018

July 24th, 2016, at 10.29 am, I sent out an email to several of my students indicating that I was available for mentorship for a couple of hours a week. This was not only driven by the desire to give back to the academic community, but also from a number of requests by a few of the students asking for guidance on several academic and non-academic matters outside the classroom. Two days later, I received nearly 40 emails in my inbox from students expressing the desire for mentorship. While the number of responses indicated that I was onto something, I had no idea what the mentorship would look like.

Two months later, in September 2016, 35 students had sacrificed their Saturday morning to attend a meeting whose sole agenda was to brainstorm on how a mentorship for a tech university student would be structured. These ideas emanated from a survey that the students had just completed as well as their feedback on the kind of skills they did not learn in a formal classroom, but were necessary for their success. The results gave birth to what stands today as the pillars of the mentorship program: Personal Development, Professional Development, Innovation and ICT Skills, Scholarship Application and Awareness, and Community Involvement.

Two years later, what started as an informal, unstructured program — and at the time, one with no plan — with 35 students from 4 universities, had grown to have served 95 students from 12 universities. Two years later, we have KamiLimu.

Evidently, mentorship has been at the heart of my personal and professional life since then. While the main objective of KamiLimu is to up-skill tech students at tertiary level with skills that complement their classroom learning, I have learned innumerable lessons along the way as a mentor and Program Lead. Here are eight of them.


Learner-centered mentorship is key

The KamiLimu mentorship curriculum was solely designed from the needs of students. Along the way, the input of students, various industry and professional stakeholders have formed an integral part of shaping the curriculum, which was implemented for the first time during KamiLimu’s third cohort in March to October 2018. The curriculum is currently under review to implement some of the feedback given and an updated version will be implemented during the fourth cohort from February to September 2019. The objective is to keep iterating and improving as the program grows, in order to realize a mentorship curriculum that has the highest impact on preparing tech students for global competitiveness.

The key to being a good mentor is to make people become more of who they already are — not to make them more like you. — Suze Oman

Being receptive to feedback

A mentorship program is only as good as the value that its beneficiaries derive from it. Therefore, impact tracking and program evaluation is an important part of KamiLimu. The students in the program provide excellent ideas — both small and big — on everything from running day-to-day sessions to suggestions on aspects of the mentorship curriculum. We continually create opportunities to receive this feedback during our sessions, periodic program assessments, as well as through impact surveys. It is by listening and considering the valuable suggestions given that we have been able to meet the expectations of the students we serve.

An opportunity to learn

Two years ago I had not yet learned the key tenets of public speaking, nor understood the core principles of negotiating skills at the workplace. It is also through KamiLimu that I listened to Sunny Bindra’s keynote during one of our sessions on ‘The Bigger Deal’, just before he launched his book on the same. Thus, I have equally been taught and better equipped with new skills and knowledge. I have also been inspired by the students I have had the honor to work with. For example, my interest in Data Science has been piqued by observing the passion and delivery of Gholla Kioko on the subject. I have been awed by the selfless commitment to their personal growth of students like Francis Oludhe, Mwaniki Nyaga, and Allan Wasega. I have been challenged to be even more observant to time-keeping by students like Caleb Muoki who maintain utmost discipline in their time, just as much as in contributing to the program. I have been inspired by the dedication of students like Maureen Nduta and Brian Okinyi, who traveled from miles away to attend mentorship sessions, even when it cost them more. I have reminded myself to be like Victor Mwenda, Susan Kiragu, and Maurine Chepkoech, who are some of the most teachable students I have ever met. I have thrived in the presence of Karagania Mwamlole, Lynet Kosgey, Barbara Omukhango, Cornelius Kihungu, Joy Bii, and Ruth Waiganjo, who have been selfless in their service and always on hand to support me and the mentees. From all these students, I have learned to be patient, to be present, to be loving. From all the students I have worked with at KamiLimu, I am learning to be the best version of a human being that I can be.

Mentees during a mentorship workshop session on Innovation

Building a support system

Mentorship is hard work. Impactful mentorship even more so. Thus, a consistent and present support system is key to its success. One of the models that we have created at KamiLimu is to include the peer mentors (students who have previously graduated as mentees and are now supporting other students) as part of the decision-making process. Having peer mentors run key aspects of the program not only ensures that workload is distributed but it also promotes accountability and belonging, as well as a sustainable support system throughout the cycles of mentorship. Also, we have worked on and continue to build valuable relationships with various institutions and individuals in the local community, which provides an opportunity for us to gain from their experience as well as give back. Whatever the support system model there may be, it is imperative to create one that encourages collaboration, input from others and is sustainable.

Creating a Safe space

Mentorship tends to work best when mentees can feel that they are in a non-discriminative environment where they are free to fail, not be at their best, share their weak and high points, and have room to learn. It is by creating this safe space that we are able to encourage creativity, the growth of self-confidence, and budding innovation. It is by creating this safe space that we are able to see teams that thrive in working together, students who were once shy being able to deliver a speech, and blossoming friendships that form lifelong bonds.

Showing up

Mentorship starts by first, showing up. A mentorship program will not be successful if the mentee it is meant to impact does not show up. But more importantly, mentorship will not be successful if the mentor does now show up, every day, consistently. The importance of this is not so much because the mentor is supposed to be an example and role model to the mentee, but because the very act of showing up is a message in itself — that the mentorship relationship is important. It is in expressing this message, consistently so, that people become more receptive to learning, to listening, and to working together towards a common goal. Showing up is usually the start of impact.

Commitment

Impactful and lasting mentorship rarely occur from a one-time event. Indeed, we can get inspired by listening to a speaker or attending a workshop, but applying the lessons thereafter is where the real impact lies. Thus, mentorship is a long and arduous process, whose work is not often glamorous, and sometimes may fail to achieve the desired results. Because of this, a mentor would need to be committed to the process without the rush for quick results or gains. A mentor would need to be present even when they would ideally be elsewhere, in order to see the process through.

Heart

Before signing up to be a mentor or getting involved in a mentorship program, one should ask themselves if this is something they really want to do. If this is something that is driven by passion, and not potential monetary gain or prestige. If this is something that is at the heart of their belief, value system, or lessons that they have learned along their journey. Being a mentor does not have to be an inborn trait. In fact, I find that some of the best mentors are people who have gone through certain experiences in their lives that trigger the desire to teach others or to give back if only to make it easier for those who will go after them. Therefore, as a potential mentee or mentor, the fundamental question to answer is — is your heart in it?