Transforming the Ordinary

Transformations often happen slowly, imperceptibly, in the midst of the commonplace.

I work most Saturdays in my office with either Dave Hicks or Sam Stockwell, two incredibly bright Gordon College seniors. Saturdays afford us a chance to talk about life over lunch while working together. They also assist me during the week, as their schedules allow. On a typical day, they help me manage my communication flow and assist me with some administrative projects. They may sit in on meetings or offer their perspectives on student matters that have been brought to my attention. They observe how I go about my work. At lunch, our conversations range from their coursework to their grand ambitions; sometimes one will ask me about a certain decision I have made or a situation I encountered on the job that week. Every so often, Dave and Sam travel with me to a conference or an event off-campus -- even once or twice across the country. Yet, for all of the work's day-to-day normality, I am convinced that these are some of the most important experiences college leaders can provide for their students.

Dave and Sam work closely with me as part of the Gordon Presidential Fellows Program, an initiative my institution launched a year and a half ago that pairs promising students with senior Gordon leaders in mentoring partnerships. Additionally, we provide these fellows special leadership education programming and exclusive access to campus guests and speakers. But the core of the fellowship is the opportunity for students to work alongside their administrative mentors (called principals) -- to assist, to ask questions, and to get to know one another as individuals with unique gifts and ambitions.

It's a program modeled after the country's most highly regarded, prestigious fellowship for early-career leaders, the White House Fellowship. As a sociology professor at Rice University, I conducted a comprehensive study of the White House Fellowship, examining the impact of the program on its fellows. (The study, Surveying America's Leadership, was conducted through the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, and can be accessed in full here.) The results were quite definitive. We found that White House Fellows often went on to make major differences in their fields as senior leaders in government, nonprofits, businesses and academia. We found also that they are highly engaged in their communities and actively involved in charitable organizations. And those fellows who related to their principal as a "friend" or "mentor" were nearly three times as likely to view the fellowship as very significant in their personal and professional development.

This makes sense. Mentors provide support, encouragement, and advice during a time when individuals are searching out their professional identities and learning their own leadership styles. We offer them a window into our real work life, beneath much of the veneer of professional contexts; we show them "the person behind the title," so to speak, doing the work as we have learned to do it over the years from our own mentors. Mentoring transforms words like leadership from abstract concepts to real, doable human work. In this way, fellows can begin to imagine themselves in leadership roles. And, most practically, when the time comes, mentors can often make crucial connections on behalf of their protégés. Providing an enthusiastic vote of confidence to employers I may know personally, or to graduate school colleagues on behalf of the students I have gotten to know over my academic career, has been one of the greatest blessings of being a mentor.

Indeed, the heart of mentoring is in serving those in whose place we once stood. We are blessed to be a blessing with the resources, knowledge, skills, and influence we have been given. Leaders, think of your own career paths. If they are anything like mine, it will not be hard to think back and identify individuals who invested themselves in your personal growth and your professional development. My life changed because of George Gallup, Jr., of the eponymous polling firm started by his father. Through working with George, I developed a zeal for social science research, honed my ability as a public speaker, and coauthored two books, all of which propelled me as a sociologist, professor, and now a college president.

At Gordon, we initiated some mentoring relationships through a program -- and, though I am certainly biased, I think that it was an important initiative. But it's not the only way mentoring can happen. As we wrap up an academic semester and another calendar year, we can begin to look forward to next semester, next year, and I think we in higher education can do even more. I encourage all students: seek out mentors however you can in fields that interest you; pursue even basic, ordinary work if it puts you in regular contact with a professional you admire. And administrators, staff members, professors: open your work up to its potential for mentorship. If we are willing to invest in the young people who want to learn from us and from our day-to-day work, something truly transformative awaits.