"3-Minute Mentor" is an occasional Connect column delivering bite-size career advice from higher education leaders, writers, and researchers. If you or someone you know can offer insightful professional development tips, please contact the Connect editor.
With 25 years of higher education experience, Luisa Havens Gerardo, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Virginia Tech, has mentored professionals both younger and older than herself. Although mentorship is often couched in age-related language, mentorship is about personality, experience, and confidence -- not age. As Havens Gerardo suggests: When it comes to mentoring relationships, it’s important to set aside your ego.
“Ask for help or advice from your peers and other professionals you interact with,” she said. “That is how you learn!”
Find the oasis in a desert: Where to start
When Havens Gerardo began her higher education career, she was on a remote campus in Idaho with little opportunity to build collegial relationships. She had to take the initiative and forge those paths on her own. That experience influenced how she builds community ties at her workplace now.
“Whenever I take a new position, I think of the first 3 months as one long meet and greet,” she says. “No one will tell you who to meet or what to do--you have to get the confidence to do so on your own.”
If you find it difficult to take initiative, observe your peers and other professionals in leadership positions at meetings and events--what they say, how they act, and how people respond to them. Be involved in organizations and societies--build your own path, and you’ll naturally develop professional and mentoring relationships to your benefit.
Gerardo’s path to leadership: Finding a calling
Like many AACRAO members, Havens Gerardo came to higher education via a circuitous career path. A broadcasting and environmental interpretation major, Gerardo didn’t see a career in higher education in her future as a student.
“I wanted to work in national parks,” she laughed, recalling her fondness for the educational programming aspect of it.
In her undergrad, Havens Gerardo was the only person in a scholarship cohort of 11 who wasn’t a forestry or agriculture major. Her first mentor, Mike Whiteman, was an international student advisor in the college of forestry and took her under his wing. He didn’t just teach her academic or professional skills, but was also invested in her personal well-being -- without being patronizing.
“Mike cared,” she said. “He taught me how to go to an American grocery store...and brought me blankets when it was cold. It was 60 degrees when I first arrived on campus, but even that was freezing compared to Honduras!”
With an educational degree from Honduras, Havens Gerardo was familiar with working in education. When a position for a recruitment officer opened up at her alma mater of the University of Idaho, she leapt at the opportunity. They wanted someone with a communications background; she thought it would be a good interviewing experience, as someone green to the workplace.
“I didn’t think I was going to get it, honestly,” she mused. But she secured the position, and a year and a half later, realized she had found her true calling.
“I loved being able to make a difference,” she said. “Working with diverse groups, like low income or minority populations really made me feel as though I was doing something that mattered.” Although it was challenging working in a new field, Havens Gerardo stressed the difference between challenging and difficult: “I think difficult is when you don’t know what you’re working towards. For me it was challenging because I loved it and knew what my goal was.”
From mentee to mentor
Over the last 25 years, Havens Gerardo has learned much more about how to build those professional learning communities. In addition to the insights articulated above, here are two key pieces of advice that she likes to pass along to up and coming professionals.
- Empathize. Try to understand the perspectives of the individuals you work with. That understanding will help contextualize their concerns and motivations.
- Develop a long-term goal. Be willing to invest the time and effort to achieve it. Have patience if it doesn’t yield instant gratification--the benefits will come eventually.