I received a surprise text last week from a student I used to mentor.

“Hey Leah, how have you been 😃 I just wanted to text you to let you know, I know you don’t work at X anymore but I just feel the need to tell you good news about my grades. I did so much better this last semester that I actually got off of academic probation and my GPA so far is 3.0. I decided to change my major from nursing to psychology and I love it so much. I’m aspiring to be a clinical psychologist. I’ve been doing so much research this past summer to expand my knowledge more and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I miss you 😢

I reached back out to Ms. Mentee (a general title I’ll give her) and we met for lunch recently. She is doing fantastic and is excited to be in a major that fascinates her. I am so proud of the person she has become and astonished with the personal growth she achieved in such a short period of time.

The backstory about this coaching relationship is that it almost never was. I wasn’t in a formal mentor position and she wasn’t in a mentee program. We fell into our roles due to an unsaid intrinsic obligation: I felt I needed to help if I could; she felt she could use the help if it was offered.

The opportunity presented itself to us both a few years ago. When I was at my prior institution, I had the privilege of working with area K12 schools. The college tried to create a program for students graduating early where we could provide better support for college. After a lot of effort, we received only one student, Ms. Mentee.

I learned a lot in the process about the difficulties some students face being first-generation students from marginalized backgrounds.

In the case of this student, her father was deceased and her mother was not in her life. Her 32-year-old sister had raised her since she was 16. I sat with her through the enrollment process where she needed to explain this story to at least 5 different units in order to receive assistance because there was not a shared note system. I couldn’t imagine having to tell this story over and over to people: “my dad is dead and my mom gave up on me”.

What’s more, is that all of the financial aid requirements were stacked against her. Since financial aid asks for parent income data, she needed to go to great lengths to show her sister had official guardianship and didn’t make a lot of income. She was largely on her own to fill our complex paperwork, tax data, and financial data.

Once we selected a major (nursing), we needed to purchase textbooks. People who live paycheck to paycheck need ample time to set aside a large sum. Syllabi generally come out 1-2 weeks before a course begins. Neither Ms. Mentee nor her sister made enough money to purchase the $350 worth of textbooks needed for that first semester. When Ms. Mentee’s high school Head of School reached out to see how she was doing, I reported the situation. He was very supportive of her and offered to sponsor her first semester’s textbooks.

Lack of income leads to other issues, as well, such as transportation. Ms. Mentee did not have a car and took public transportation, which isn’t the best in my city. She had a job, but it was a low-paying, hourly job about 30 minutes by bus from the college. She lived another 20 minutes in the other direction. We had a discussion about why a meaningless Dollar General job on the other side of town wasn’t going to be of many benefits to her. I then worked with people on campus to get her a higher-paying job at the campus dining hall.

In addition, food scarcity was an issue for both her and her sister. Like many colleges, my former institution had a food pantry. I went with Ms. Mentee to meet with the Chief Mission Officer and the Chief Officer of Student Affairs to see what could be done about both transportation and food scarcity. The great news is the Office of Student Affairs collaborated with the student government on an emergency fund. The bad thing about the program is Ms. Mentee had to write a letter expressing the terrible need she was in and it was up to her fellow students to play Caesar and approve or disapprove her request. Like other situations until this point, she also needed to describe her situation to two more white, affluent adults to receive emergency funds for food spending.

On the surface, this college created a thorough system of support for this student. But what most colleges don’t manage to get right is how to offer these supports with as little psychological harm as possible. Needing to repeat and defend your story to strangers and peers takes its toll, and all of this was asking a lot from a 17-year-old, which is why I felt I needed to stick by her in the process. I gained a much deeper understanding of what it’s like to be a non-white, first-generation college student without a lot of family support in the process.

For those also looking to mentor, here were some of my learnings:

  1. Understand where they are coming from. What could I, a privileged white woman, know about being a young black female? We may have been first-generation college students, but my support system and the experience were very different than Ms. Mentee’s. I focused on listening to Ms. Mentee’s stories and had some deep conversations with her to understand how she felt and what her goals were.
  2. Be an advocate. In many ways, what Ms. Mentee was missing was a navigator to help her through the many steps and services. I went with her to every meeting, helped her figure out who to contact and how to contact them, and how to ask for what she needed. In addition, I did some of my own reaching out on her behalf to follow up on services. Sometimes, a mentee needs someone who will not only advocate on their behalf but who will help them every step of the way.
  3. Stay in communication. Ms. Mentee was 17. With 20 years between us, we definitely had our differences in communication. Once I found Ms. Mentee preferred texting, I realized it was best if I checked up on her weekly and to ask more than just ‘how is it going’. I usually led inquiries with specific questions – ‘happy Friday, how did you do on your psychology exam?’ ‘Hope you are having a good day. Did you get those grocery cards yet?’ Eventually, Ms. Mentee began to text for help and questions.
  4. Keep pushing them to set goals and change habits that aren’t serving them. I talked often with Ms. Mentee about the goals she had for herself and why. Assessment can be a shameful discussion for some students, but Ms. Mentee allowed me to help with her grades.  Once I helped her to make the objective connection between her grades and her goals, we began to approach all grading conversations as matter of fact. When she didn’t perform well, we discussed how she prepared for the assessment so she could try different habits for next time.
  5. Let them know when something isn’t going alright and suggest a pivot. When it became clear Ms. Mentee wasn’t doing well in nursing after a year of switching habits, we acted fast. Together with her advisor, we three weighed all of Ms. Mentee’s options to remain or select another major to be more successful. For students in Ms. Mentee’s shoes, not making an academic pivot could be a very costly mistake. And she did! Turns out, psychology ended up being a much better fit academically and personally for her.
  6. Team up with others to build a support system. I realized quickly that, as much as I could do as a mentor alone, I could do a great deal more by building a team to help support aspects of Ms. Mentee’s needs. Working with a consistent team helped reduce the amount of time Ms. Mentee needed to explain her situation, and made it easier for her to get the continued services she needed.

These were surely learnings for me. Being a mentor is a rewarding, learning experience for a mentor, but also a critical need in a mentee’s success.