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June/July 2014

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Mentors at work

 

From protégé to mentor

Through MentorNet, this Ford software developer has helped college students explore careers and grapple with personal issues

Melissa Jenkins discovered MentorNet (www.mentornet.org) in 2002. Inspired by the program, Jenkins is now an active mentor. For twelve years she has helped college students with career guidance, networking and advice on work-life balance.

The organization’s goal is to assist college students in their pursuit of STEM degrees and careers by providing high-quality mentoring relationships with professionals in the workforce. Mentors and their protégés are connected across generational, gender, racial and cultural lines. The free services are offered to STEM students at any college or university in the U.S. In addition, more than 200 corporations, agencies and organizations are connected with the program as supporters.

In 2002, Jenkins, a software developer with Ford Motor Company (Dearborn, MI), was considering work environments outside the automotive industry. As she explored networking opportunities, she found MentorNet. “That’s how the whole thing started,” she remembers. “I ended up not changing jobs. But through the program, I saw all the good that MentorNet could do for both the mentor and the college student.”

Doing good through volunteerism
The opportunity to mentor through MentorNet fits into Jenkins’ personal mission to find useful volunteer work. “When you help a college student who is talented and bright and can go out and do fantastic things for society, I think that’s one of the best ways to give back.”

Becoming a mentor is the easy part, Jenkins says. After signing up, all she needed was someone to provide a reference. “I think an open system like this is a good thing. All you have to do is sign up. It’s not a complicated process.”

Personal experiences provide insight
Mentors create profiles that focus on their professional lives. However, Jenkins believes it is important to add personal details as well. “I am a single mother of two young boys, and my older boy happens to be a quadriplegic. It is quite a challenge for me to manage fulltime employment while caring for my two children. By putting that information on my profile, college students can see that I’d be able to answer the work-life balance questions.”

Jenkins has another unique perspective that broadens her appeal to potential protégés. Even though her career is in software development, her educational background is in ecology and animal behavior. “My degree is in biology, but I went into computers and became an IT professional,” she says. “I get protégés from both sides, from biology and from the computer engineering side.”

After the potential mentor creates a profile, the next step is up to the protégé, who reviews available mentors and finds the best match. Once the college student initiates the connection, communication begins typically through email and expands into whatever communication modes work best for the mentor and protégé.

Over the past decade, Jenkins has had at least eight protégés, although she usually mentors only one at a time. Some relationships, she admits, never got off the ground because the protégé failed to respond, but others were “amazing. I had one protégé who was a post-doc. She got her PhD and is working as a scientist, although in a non-traditional setting: selling alternative health products. She opted out of the traditional academic career path of the typical PhD. Instead, she started her own business.”

Case study in success
Another protégé of Jenkins’ was a student named Michelle Scott Drewry. “She was in a difficult situation because finances were tight and she had a son. At the time, she wondered if she should just finish her bachelors degree and get a job because she needed the money, or go on to graduate school. After talking to her over and over, I realized she really wanted to get her PhD. She was so bright and talented, but she felt trapped in her situation. I tried to encourage her because this was what she really wanted to do.”

Drewry decided to go to graduate school and moved from California to Florida to do research in physiological ecology. She was an instructor at different schools after graduation. Recently she took a position as a research specialist at the University of South Carolina (Columbia).

As an undergraduate student, Drewry found that there was plenty of financial support for students in STEM majors, but little general support. “When I told an older gentleman at a career event that I was studying biology, he said, ‘Oh, you want to work for Sea World?’ I said no, I wanted to do research,” she says. “It was hard because I didn’t know people who were doing what I wanted to do, and the people I knew didn’t understand my experiences.”

Drewry discovered MentorNet through an association for women in science at her school in San Diego. She connected with Jenkins. “What I liked about her was that while her degree was in biology, it’s not the field she’s working in. That showed me that when you get out of school you aren’t stuck in that academic field. You can do many different things with your degree. It’s good to know you can switch things up if you need to.”

Career and education mentoring weren’t the only benefits that Drewry got from her relationship with Jenkins. Drewry talked to Jenkins about motherhood and single parenting issues. “That was very helpful,” Drewry recalls. Today, even though their official mentor/protégé relationship is over, the two still keep in touch.

Jenkins has been working with her current protégé for the last several years. Jenkins is involved with Mensa and gifted-student education, and she has encouraged her current protégé, who is considered gifted, to explore a variety of opportunities. “This protégé has a twin sister who is also gifted and who wants to be a marine biologist. But she is getting negative feedback from people who say the program is too competitive and she’ll never get in. So I’ve been encouraging the sister and kind of mentoring her also,” Jenkins says.

Jenkins has written letters of recommendation for internships on behalf of her protégés. “One got an internship at my alma mater,” she says. “We got to spend some face-to-face time together.”

As Jenkins becomes more active with her local Mensa chapter, she sees the benefit of sharing her experiences with college students who may not know what programs are available. “I find this is especially important when mentoring minority students who so often aren’t recognized as gifted and may need the extra support,” she adds.

Any STEM professional can join
A MentorNet mentor can be anyone who is working in a STEM field. The mentor determines how much time to devote to the program. “It can be an email a week,” Jenkins says, “but you can adjust it to make it work for you.” It’s important, she adds, for the mentor to be open and honest with the protégé if the mentoring relationship has to take a back seat for any reason. No matter how much time is spent in actual mentoring activities, Jenkins believes the most important part is the connection and letting the protégé know that you are available to help.

“MentorNet is available to students at any college in the U.S., so every time I see someone who is a college student or is about to become a college student, I tell them to join MentorNet and get themselves a mentor,” she says. “I know that when they do, that will give them a tremendous advantage without costing anything.”

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