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Mentoring and Subversion

Jim Salvucci
Dean, School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Stevenson University

The opening sessions of the AAC&U Centennial Symposium ranged across topics, but one theme that emerged Wednesday morning had to do with the impact and importance of mentoring to student learning. One of the most cogent comments was in the form of an audience question. During the second session, someone (and I apologize that I did not catch his name or his institution), pushing against some panel commentaries about making students career ready, asked whether higher education should be about subversion rather than about training students to conform to corporate structures. In a later session, Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, had some choice comments in a similar vein. (To read some of those, check the #aacu15 hashtag on Twitter, where his remarks were liberally documented.)

One of the panelists in the second session, Mark Lindsay, suggested that the choice the questioner framed was not so mutually exclusive, that the well-educated employee would be the one who could push against the general “flow” when it is headed in the wrong direction.

All this discussion got me thinking about my own experience with mentoring. Let me start with a confession. Jim Citrin, on the first panel, made the point that mentoring relationships are “a two-way street.” He spoke of how students need to seek and cultivate mentoring relationships.

So, my confession? I am a lousy mentee. I have never successfully cultivated a long-term, meaningful, positive relationship with a mentor at any point in my life or career. Perhaps because of this personal shortcoming, I am probably a mediocre mentor--although I have prolifically mentored students and colleagues, I am not sure how valuable many of those efforts have been. One big exception, though, is a student I started mentoring nearly five years ago. At Stevenson University, my institution, both the student population and the full-time faculty are about one-third first generation. In light of this, we started a program tin which faculty who were themselves first-generation college students mentor first-generation freshmen whom we identified as “underprepared” and “at risk” of attrition.

The student assigned to me (I will call him “Steve”) was and is hungry to learn and grow. The fact that I have been mentoring him for five years while he earns his four-year degree may suggest failure, but time-to-completion is a poor measure of impact and value. Or so I tell myself. He started as a biology major with an eye toward medical school, but he is (another confession) the one and only student I have ever advised to become a business administration major--a subject for which he has a real passion and interest.

At first, Steve talked incessantly about how he would be a huge success on Wall Street. He used to joke about naming me to his first board of directors. I am not one to discourage a young man’s ambitions, but Steve’s required some careful, uh, subversion. Despite my alarm, I needed to guide him gently toward a more critical view of the “flow.” Sometimes, such as when I gave him a book on financial scammers who ended up in the slammer, I was not so subtle. I am happy and proud to report that now, in his last semester, he no longer talks about earning an MBA in order to facilitate his ruthless takeover of Wall Street. Instead--and I must add, with no prompting from me--he plans to pursue a degree in school counseling so that he can guide high school students in a way that he feels was lacking in his own experience. He wants to “give back” to a system that did not give much to him at all. That’s called altruism.

In other words, over five years, he and I collaborated on the subversion of his dreams in order to redirect his career trajectory. Who knows where he will find himself in the future? Careers are rarely, likely never, straight lines. What I do know is that, whatever he does, Steve will stand against and even try to redirect the “flow” when he perceives it moving the wrong way. Steve is becoming one of those well-rounded and responsible citizens we tout as the ideal outcome of liberal learning.

So I share the implied concern of the questioner from the audience. The goal of liberal learning needs to involve a healthy dose of subversion rather than conformity. But I also agree with Mark Lindsay that we can, through education, help graduates become successful in their careers while nurturing in them the wherewithal to stand agains the misdirected “flow.” Critical thinking, ethical reasoning, etc., constitute the stuff of liberal learning and are at the core of purposeful citizenship. Yes, my relationship with Steve involves more intensity than anyone can broadly apply, and Steve is an extraordinary young man by several measures. But his development is a good example of what we heard Wednesday morning: the importance of intentional mentoring in preparing students to be thoughtful and successful citizens.

Now, as everyone has been pondering, how do we scale that up?