What I’ve learned from mentoring

At a Brooklyn Nets game with my mentee.

I currently serve as a mentor to a high school senior and it’s an exciting time for my mentee. He is in the midst of applying to a slew of state and city universities in New York. University at Buffalo is his top choice and I am waiting to hear that he gets that congratulatory email in the spring. Back in my day, I remember waiting on pins and needles for that big envelope to arrive in my mailbox.

I’m in the third year of the AIGANY Mentoring program, a program that pairs design professionals with high school students at the High School of Art and Design. I’d like to share my story and some takeaways about my experience serving as a mentor. Starting as a way to get involved and give back, I’m surprised how easily and quickly it’s become an integral part of my life. The best thing about it is that it doesn’t feel like work.

Find what you love

With our careers, we’re often encouraged to find something that we love. The same should hold true for volunteering and serving. I’m a bit of a urban tree geek so I was involved in various tree planting days sponsored by MillionTrees NYC, a successful initiative to plant 1 million trees in New York City. After doing this annually for a few years, I felt that I could do more. As a creative professional, I’m personally interested in how we can foster more creativity in our youth, no matter what they decide to do in their life. I came across a mentoring program with my local AIGA chapter and signed up immediately. I gravitated to this program because it seemed like a good way to merge my personal, professional and service interests.

Leadership matters

Anjali and Sabrina with participants of the AIGANY Mentoring program.

Anjali Menon and Sabrina Hall are the co-chairs of the program and both of them have been instrumental in making me a better mentor. They lead the program with confidence, enthusiasm and thoughtful consideration for everyone in the program. When it comes to any workshop, meeting or event, both Anjali and Sabrina bring their A-game in meticulous organization and planning.

My mentee loves sports so we’ve had the opportunity to go to baseball and basketball games (go Mets & Nets!). We’ve also had the opportunity to check out museums and galleries. One memorable event was a tour of Raaka Chocolate, an artisanal chocolate factory followed up with a visit to Pioneer Works, an impressive gallery space founded by Dustin Yellin. Anjali and Sabrina care immensely about the success of the program and they have created a strong engaged community of mentors and mentees.

Listening and communicating

I quickly learned that if I emailed anything to my mentee, it went into a black hole. I stopped emailing him and we communicate primarily by text message. He likes coffee so we usually catch up in person at a local cafe. When we meet up, we chat about what’s new. I remind myself not to offer advice, unless I’m directly asked. We talk about school and family life, both of which are going exceptionally well for him. He has a loving, supportive family and I’m glad to be a part of the support system that will help him pursue his dreams and goals.

Supporting and responding

In addition to regularly meeting up and going to events, I like to find other ways I can support my mentee’s interests. In his sophomore year, my mentee expressed interest in pursuing medicine as a career. Not knowing a lot about medicine (I have a degree in design), I decided to call a few doctor friends to see if they would be willing to chat with my mentee. My friend Oliver who is a practicing neurologist in Boston graciously agreed to do a Skype chat with us.

My mentee was able to ask Oliver anything related to medicine: the day-to-day practice, training and educational requirements. My mentee wanted to know what college major is best and he asked specific questions about the MCAT. My mentee is still interested in pursuing medicine, two years after the call.

Reflecting and looking forward

In the years I’ve known my mentee, I’ve seen him mature into a self-assured young adult with a goal of becoming a doctor. Seeing and being a part of this gradual transformation has been gratifying. He has always been unfailingly polite, easy-going and confident. I credit his parents and family for doing an amazing job of raising him. He’s been able to meet his challenges at school with a level head and a determination to work hard.

Anjali and Sabrina asked me in early November 2016 if I wanted to be a co-chair for the mentoring program. They would be stepping down and pursuing other interests. I was honored and humbled to be asked. After I learned more about the role, assessed my capacity, and thought about the kind of positive impact I could have with twenty to thirty teenagers, I said yes. It’ll be great to be part of support system for young adults in a time that’s a little less certain than when I grew up.

I can’t wait to get started.