Mentor-Mentee relationships: Freshmen STEM Project

April 14, 2016 - Kevin Smith

Two sides of the same coin

This weeks post features multiple mentor-mentee pairs within the STEM Gateway/STEM UP Freshmen STEM Project.

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The Freshman STEM Project (FSP) combines mentoring by professional scientists and engineers from Sandia National Laboratories, success coaching, and math support by Student Education Leaders (SELs). Students in the FSP meet monthly to learn more about the careers, pathways and interests of their professional mentors and also meet with SELS and other FSP students. The students typically meet in small groups with their mentors, other students, and SELs. During these meetings there is also guided discussion between the students and their mentors to help develop skills needed for academic success. The following is an interview with two professional mentors and two students about their experience with professional mentoring in the FSP during the 2015-16 schoolyear.

Please describe how you became interested in the professional mentoring opportunity with the Freshman STEM Project.
[Mrs. Jan Williams – Mentor] I have been involved in a lot of outreach as well as mentoring some of the folks I hired at Sandia, but have never been involved in a mentoring program per se. I saw a notice in Sandia’s internal Daily News and thought this would be a good way to connect with students without making an overwhelming commitment of time.
[Dr. Rob Kittinger – Mentor] I’m passionate about science and the STEM fields and I’ve always been interested in mentoring students so when I was presented with the idea by a friend and fellow Sandian (Kenny Armijo) I jumped at the opportunity to get involved as a professional STEM mentor at UNM.

[Ms. Carolina Gomez - Student] Prior to the beginning of the Fall semester, I received an email regarding the Freshman STEM Project and was interested because I didn't have very much experience related to the degree field I was going into. Participating in my high school's mentorship program proved to be really beneficial for learning about other career fields, so I felt that the Freshman STEM Project would be a great opportunity for insight too.

[Mr. Jesse Valencia - Student] I became interested in the Freshman STEM Project after receiving emails about the program.

Please summarize your relationship with your mentees (or mentors).FSP
[Williams] The advantage of the group setting for mentoring has been that I’ve gotten to know the students in my own group as well as those from other groups. This kind of mentoring lends a certain benefit from just being there as a role model as much as imparting advice. Students need to not only hear from people in the workplace, they also need to see what it means to be a professional in the workplace. And they need to see diversity among those professionals. People who look like them and who started out like they did, as well as people who aren’t like them at all.
[Kittinger] I primarily meet with my mentees once a month during group activities hosted by STEM UP [STEM Gateway] on campus. In addition to this, I’ve attended special events with them (the Calculus musical), written my mentees emails, reviewed their resumes, and passed their resumes onto my professional contacts to try and help them get their dream internships.

[Gomez] We meet once a month in a group setting and are usually given a few topics to guide our discussion (such as social support, study habits, career-search tips, etc). Our mentors share their advice and also listen to what each of us has to say and any concerns we may have.

[Valencia] I would describe my relationship with my mentor as a less formal teacher and student relationship. Rather than just listening for information, I learn through conversations about mutual experiences.

Please describe the most rewarding aspects of the mentoring relationship.
[Williams] As a mentor I gain a special pleasure being around young people who are talented, motivated, and are living the realization of their dreams, but of course are also experiencing the anxiety, self-doubt, and difficulties that come with slogging through a STEM curriculum. I find it rejuvenating and stimulating on many levels – intellectually, emotionally, and socially. I can’t speak specifically for the students, but naturally I hope that they learn from us mentors that a STEM curriculum is hard, but worth it; that having difficulty is part of the journey; and that there are many rewards for their perseverance. Among those rewards are economic stability; stimulating, creative work; and the ability to contribute to society in a way that uses their incredible and unique talents.
[Kittinger] I believe that we should give back to our communities, and this is one small way for me to do that. The Albuquerque community has given so much to me and my family; my wife is a PhD student at UNM; we are both employed at Sandia; our local church encourages us – It just feels great to give back and be a part of this amazing community of people. You get to see a lot of smiles while mentoring and it’s fun. The most rewarding aspect of being a mentor has to be watching the STEM students grow. They were all really smart on day one, but as a mentor you’re able to broaden their possibilities by showing them opportunities they were not aware of, by introducing them to key people, and elevating their expectations. As time goes on, you see them growing in professionalism and exploring new possibilities.

[Gomez] Insight into the inner-workings of STEM career fields and the opportunity to hear the mentors' first hand experiences in their career and the valuable lessons they've learned through these experiences. It's a great feeling to have people that want you to succeed academically and professionally and who are there to support and help you achieve your goals.

[Valencia] From my mentor, I have learned important professional tips such as résumé building tips and the best ways to network. I have also learned important study and work habits that helped my mentor succeed in college, along with the steps I can take now to make applying for graduate school much easier. The first year of college is a lot to take in and I was really overwhelmed at what I should do to make the most of my first year. Having a mentor helped to relieve this pressure and I have been informed about important opportunities that I surely would have missed out on without their experience.

Please describe any drawbacks of the mentoring relationship.
[Williams] The only drawback for me has been the frustration of being unavailable for some of the sessions that were planned due to business travel. I think I have avoided this kind of time commitment in the past because of this. But I don’t believe I would change my decision based on this. I am happy to have participated.
[Kittinger] As humans we occasionally let each other down. We have certain expectations, and they don’t happen. I’ve provided good advice to a student that wasn’t followed. I’ve reached out to other professionals for help on behalf of my mentees, and the professionals have dropped the ball. I’ve been sick and missed one of the group meetings with my STEM mentees – and that was disappointing. There’s risk in every relationship but being a mentor is worth it.

[Gomez] None that I can think of.

[Valencia] The only real drawback to the mentor relationship is availability. Only meeting for an hour and half each month limits the interaction. If the student or mentor misses a meeting then the interaction is hindered and set back even more.

What advice do you have for a student that is looking for a mentor?
[Williams] Some folks might advise finding someone who looks like you and may have had a similar experience. I think that there is also value in having a mentor that isn’t like you. For me, as a younger woman juggling work and kids and marriage, it was valuable to have an older male whose wife had stayed home and raised the kids, and who was actually part of the “good ole’ boy network, because he knew how the system worked and could give me that dose of reality when I needed it. But of course, students much choose carefully. For me, finding a man who had daughters made him more empathetic to what I experienced in the workplace.
[Kittinger] Students who are looking for a mentor should simply think of people they look up to (personally, professionally, or based on financial success). Once they identify a person or two, they should either send them an email or ask them in person if they would be their mentor. If the person says yes, then suggest defining what mentorship will look like. How often will you meet in person, how often will you touch base via a call or email. I suggest you meet once a month minimum. If asking someone is too daunting, ask a career counselor or academic advisor what mentoring groups or services are available to you. The hardest part is just taking that first step. Once you have a mentor, cherish it, and make the most of it.

[Gomez] I think it is important to try to socialize with as many people as possible in the field you are interested in. Ask those around you if they know of someone who (or if they themselves) could mentor you, seek mentorships through school services, and keep your eyes open for opportunities and events provided by your school and student organizations. You never know what might come up!

[Valencia] I would tell the student that they can learn from any professional, not only ones in their particular field. Even though my mentor is in a similar field as me, I learned much more about making my college experience more meaningful by working towards a professional goal instead of just focusing on things such as GPA.

What advice do you have for mentors (or mentees) in building and sustaining a mentoring relationship?
[Williams] Students should not hesitate to reach out to a mentor, even if they just need someone to listen. Mentors realize that they are not there to be the font of all knowledge. They are there to listen and offer support, and help if it is requested. Respect for each other is also important. A mentoring relationship based on mutual respect may well last for decades. Students should keep their expectations realistic. Although a mentor may be useful in helping search for an internship or a job upon graduation, they are not there to relieve students of duties and responsibilities that are theirs – namely, setting their own course and finding their own path. Students should keep in mind that NO ONE has a more vested interest in their career success than they themselves have.
[Kittinger] Mentors, you were chosen because you were successful in life, and that means you probably work really hard all the time. You are balancing many responsibilities with your lives, work, your family, and other volunteer activities. Don’t make mentees competing for time slots on your calendar. Block off whatever time you decide you can give them each month and do your best to always give them that time automatically. This way, when you meet with them, you won’t seem rushed, and you can focus on them. Also, by being a consistent time, you and your mentor are less likely to forget.

[Gomez] Be communicative and meet regularly with your mentor. Don't be afraid to ask questions even if they may seem silly or overly obvious. In my experience the mentors are always happy to answer or questions and provide clarification even about the simplest things to help us learn more about the STEM fields.

[Valencia] I would advise the student to be as available as possible because every conversation and meeting taught me something different to implement in my college lifestyle.

Do you anticipate seeking out additional mentoring relationships in the future? Why or why not?
[Williams] I have years-long relationships with a number of young people I hired a few years ago. I LOVE that they still call me to talk about their career options, or just to catch up personally. So, yes, I’ll continue to seek out mentoring relationships.
[Kittinger] I do. I hope I’m always a mentor and a mentee. While I’m mentoring others, I also have two or three active mentors I regularly meet with at Sandia. I would like to continue being a mentor to students at UNM, but I’d also like to mentor people in other areas I’m passionate about and have expertise – like Technology Start Ups. My greatest mentor challenge yet is on the horizon - I’m expecting my first son to be born in late June. I’m looking forward to taking what I’ve learned while working with a diverse group of different students and other mentees and applying it to being a better dad.

[Gomez] Yes, because mentoring relationships can be very beneficial for helping make big career/academic choices. I believe that as I advance further in my engineering degree I will definitely seek advice from those who have already gone through the steps to graduate and find interesting jobs in order to guide my decision-making.

[Valencia] Yes, I will definitely seek out additional mentoring relationships because these relationships really help to alleviate the stress of preparing for the future. From the mentors experiences I have learned about the most important aspects of preparing for the future now, rather than finding out the information after it is already too late.