Mentoring: we’ve all got something to learn
By Liz Fidler, Marketing Manager
I have the pleasure of mentoring a bright A level student through a scheme that Singletrack sponsors, run by the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF), a charity which aims to make a practical improvement in social mobility for young people.
I have mentored previously, but not in such a structured way and with a specific goal in mind: getting someone from a disadvantaged background into the career of their choice, which my mentee has decided for her means attending university.
I volunteered when Singletrack launched the scheme, thinking that I had something to offer: decades of work experience, professional knowledge and two just-post teenage children of my own, both of whom had gone through the university application process. What I wasn’t expecting was to find out I also had a lot to learn and some things to remember.
More than anything else, this experience has reminded me that perspectives are very different. The world for a 17-18 year old looks nothing like it does for someone considerably older. It’s more chaotic, fraught with problems but also possibilities. How exciting, but how scary and confusing too. That sounds obvious when written down but it’s so easy to forget in the busyness of everyday life. Related to that, I had also to remind myself that, no matter how bright and motivated (and my mentee is definitely that and more), there is only such that a person can absorb and process at one time, and having to contend with A levels, university choices, friendships, relationships and so on is such a lot. In discussing this with my own young adults I received the dry observation that they wished I’d been so understanding with them – which is another tick in the box for mentoring, as there’s a professional distance which makes such discussions less personal, less emotional.
My mentee has talked to me about her culture, the pressures she is under as a young woman, and the challenges she faces every day in trying to make sense of a system which makes little sense to her (she’s been in the UK just a couple of years). I’m in awe of how much she takes in her stride in her quest for a successful career.
I also learnt, through SMF, that even when you think you’re being ineffectual you’re probably helping. For a young person who has limited support, just being there on a weekly basis to talk through options, celebrate the small victories and assist with planning, helps on a more than just a practical level. Working with a mentor exposes the mentees to a business environment and helps them understand what might be expected in terms of behaviour. For example (these are just a few of the conversations we’ve had over the course of the last six months): that simply not turning up for a call is not acceptable, that you’re expected to complete a task if you’ve committed to it, that it’s OK to (politely) challenge your teachers or others in authority. And that listening is a vital but underrated skill!
Discussing with my mentee how to best work through issues with people (teachers, other adults, friends) in a structured and constructive manner has taught me to question my own approach. I can take things personally, I’m sometimes too emotional and I have a tendency to overcommit. Equally, I try to apply to myself the advice I give my mentee, to not to be too hard on herself and that, sometimes, good enough is exactly that.
It is definitely a commitment. We spend between 30 minutes and an hour each week on the phone, and there’s also time spent prepping for those calls. But I feel that I get more out of it than I put in. I’ve been reminded to value the privileges I take for granted every day and, honestly, it feels great to feel you’re making a small difference.
We’re only half way through the process, as we’ll continue until my mentee completes her A levels. I see a bright future for her and I want to help. I hope I’m doing that, even just by exposing her to another way of thinking, as she has done for me.