News

Published:

July 16, 2009
 

Mentors Matter


By Robert A. Scott, President, Adelphi University


A mentor is a more experienced person who can be a source of guidance and wisdom. He or she demonstrates sufficient care and concern to help the recipient feel more confident about next steps, encourages aspirations and opens new networks. Over the years, I have served as a mentor to students and colleagues at various stages in my career and theirs. For me personally, there are four people who qualify unquestionably, and others who vie for contention.

The first was an antique dealer in Mount Vernon, New York, whose name I have forgotten, but whose kindness toward me at a time of stress was critically important. My mother had died; my sister and I lived in separate cities with different relatives while our father recovered from bankruptcy. After reuniting with my father and sister, I began “acting out” with some other junior high school boys who were prone to trouble. After several incidents of harassing the shopkeeper noted above, knocking on his door and calling him disparaging names, he must have seen something in me I had not felt. He called me in, asked my name and about my family, and, after setting me straight about my behavior, offered to hire me to dust, move boxes, and answer the phone. I learned that he was a widely traveled, knowledgeable person who knew the history and provenance of each object. I don’t recall working for him more than a few months, but his respect for me was an inspiration- – and repaid not so much to him as to others.

In eleventh grade, while other students were contemplating college, I was uncertain of my future. Neither of my parents had attended higher education. One day, my tenth grade biology teacher, Joe Leone, in whose class I had earned a rare “A,” stopped me in the hallway and asked, “Bobby, why haven’t you signed up for the SAT’s?” Why, indeed? No one had encouraged me. The guidance office, knowing my family circumstances, had urged me to apply to an inexpensive Midwestern public university hungry for out-of-state students that didn’t require the exams. I took the SAT’s, earned a scholarship to Bucknell, and the rest as they say, is history – – a history whose critical “hinge” was a teacher whose class I had taken a year earlier, and who cared enough to encourage me.

The president of Bucknell who invited me to join his team in admissions while I was finishing my Navy tour was Charles Watts, whose obituary I would write for our NYC club annual many years later. Dr. Watts had been a Professor of English at Brown, and the language and cadence of his speeches reflected his years of study.

“Charlie,” as we called him out of his hearing, was elegant in tempo as well as in voice, and brought a more liberal philosophy than his predecessors to the mission of the university and relations with the faculty. I was too junior to spend much time with him, but was befriended by a senior member of his staff, who described and interpreted Charlie’s thoughts, words, and actions. Charlie was a mentor, an inspiration, without even knowing it, and I repaid the compliment by writing a Memorial he couldn’t read.

A recent mentor was James Perkins, someone I knew for about two decades. Soon after I arrived at Cornell as Assistant Dean for Academic and Student Services in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Dean for whom I worked was substituting for the Provost who was absent from campus even while filling in for the President. So, in short order, I was helping in the President’s office as well as the Dean’s Office. As a consequence, I knew the thinking of campus leaders about certain issues, even as I knew more about campus dynamics from my official perspective several levels down in the organization.

The miscues about student issues that ensued resulted in the President’s resignation, which I thought was unfortunate. During his term, he had done more than almost any other campus leader in the U.S. to open access to African American students and to foster initiatives to reduce the time it takes to earn his PhD. His leadership is notable also for the fact that his vice presidents all became CEO’s of universities, an elite private school, and a major federal agency. After leaving Cornell, Dr. Perkins’ staff was protective of his privacy, so for several years it was difficult to meet with him. But, eventually, I re-connected with him and for over a decade we would meet two or three times a year to discuss life and my career. His lesson to me, “secure your footing before you extend your reach,” is one I pass on with regularity in my role as a mentor to students and colleagues.

These four mentors are among the many teachers, advisers, professors, deans, supervisors, and secretaries who have offered me guidance and shared wisdom, and showed care and concern for my growth and development.

Think about the mentors you have known and those you have mentored. The relationship does not have to be formal and structured. The important elements are for each to take the other seriously and to realize that each can learn from the other.

 
 
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