My Colleague: The Mentor

By David Smith, Ph.D.

Dr. Segal and Dr. David Smith

Dr. Segal and Dr. David Smith

One of my mentoring relationships really had an impact on my perspective about the importance of reciprocal mentoring. After almost 20 years as a Navy pilot, I found myself taking a leap of faith and finally following my passion for higher education. Having just been selected into a small community of military professors teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy, I first had to finish my graduate work to earn my doctorate degree in sociology at the University of Maryland. As it happened, my dissertation advisor became not only influential in my dissertation research, but a mentor for me to this day. We were never paired in a formal mentorship although the PhD candidate-advisor relationship could be viewed that way, but Dr. Mady Segal fundamentally changed the way I thought about mentoring relationships.

In our 12 years working together, I have never heard her use the “M” word (mentor), but I have heard her refer to me as a colleague many times. My military experience with mentoring relationships was very different to say the least. The hierarchical nature of the military and rank structure created more formal and power-laden relationships where a junior person could feel unable or even intimidated to reach out to someone more senior. But this was far different from my experience with Dr. Segal.

 

In our 12 years working together, I have never heard her use the “M” word (mentor), but I have heard her refer to me as a colleague many times.

 

From the beginning, I always felt like I was treated as an equal despite me being a student and  her being a foremost academic scholar with a list of publications, accolades and honors that we should all dream to achieve. She had a way of making me feel like she was guiding me along some path that she could see, but I did not. I always felt like she was preparing me to step into her shoes as this rising new professional, but without telling me what to do or assuming that I would follow exactly in her footsteps—collegial and the picture of what a good colleague looks like to me.

The path that she was guiding me along was the product of many hours of conversation. Really more like her asking a question and then listening to me fumble around trying to make sense of the jumble of ideas and thoughts I had. I’m still amazed she never dismissed me and said go find someone else to help you figure out your incoherence! Thoughtful, unassuming, and patient, she helped me hone my vision of where my research would go and who I would become as a scholar. I’d still be wandering around trying to figure it out if it wasn’t for her.

 

She had a way of making me feel like she was guiding me along some path that she could see, but I did not.

 

Throughout the last 12 years, she has unequivocally affirmed my abilities and talents as an academic. I can’t tell you how many times I questioned my ability to do the work required in the PhD program, publishing, presenting, and teaching. Not that I didn’t have years of experience doing similar things in the military, but this was not the military and I felt like I was often just one misstep away from someone figuring out that I didn’t belong. Dr. Segal has always provided that calm and reassuring voice of reason that gave me the confidence to perform in my new profession. This simple act of affirmation is so powerful and easy to take for granted. Truly something that we can do for each other as mentor and mentee as well.

Make no mistake, she had high expectations and standards. I often wonder how much I cost her in pens used to comment on my work. She challenged me in ways that I was not used to being challenged in the military, and especially as a senior officer. First, she challenged my thinking about diversity, privilege, the role of being an ally, and my language and behavior. There is no question that our conversations on these topics changed me in ways that ultimately defined my focus on research, scholarship, and teaching. She also challenged me to grow professionally outside my comfort zone in terms of academic skillsets. I can still remember the conversation we had about my frustration with not being able to fully answer my dissertation research questions through quantitative methods where I was comfortable. She told me that I would have to learn qualitative methods to accomplish what I was trying to do—so I learned qualitative methods that I have come to appreciate and made me a more versatile researcher. With Dr. Segal I can always count on direct feedback that is intended to help me grow and always delivered with an intent to make me a better researcher and scholar.

 

She challenged my thinking about diversity, privilege, the role of being an ally, and my language and behavior.

 

One of the hallmarks of an excellent reciprocal mentoring relationship is humility and sharing. I remember the first time as a student that Dr. Segal told me that a research finding of mine was interesting and novel. How could it be possible that she didn’t know everything and have all the answers? Later in our relationship after I was a more established researcher, I heard her tell countless academics how much she learned from me and many of her other mentees. And she often deflects questions to her mentees saying that we are the experts now who can better address their requests. Such humility and sharing of capital fundamentally characterizes the reciprocal nature of these mentoring relationships. She is an ally and advocate who never misses the opportunity to make introductions to connect me, highlight my work, and let influential people know how much she values my work. It’s always a bit awkward for me to hear that knowing that she has been the expert in these areas for decades.

As with all great mentoring relationships, they evolve—as has our relationship. I count myself fortunate to call her my friend and colleague. We don’t see each other as often anymore, but she checks in on me occasionally, as do I with her. We never outgrow the need for mentoring. And in case you’re wondering, I have never heard her call herself my mentor—I do that.

Originally posted on https://www.reciprocalmentoringlab.com/my-colleague-the-mentor/