Russell Olwell '91
Russell Olwell '91

Many years ago, when I was an unfocused undergraduate, the world-famous philosopher Cornel West *80 showed me what a mentor is supposed to do.

A friend of mine, who looked up to West as a mentor, was facing withdrawal from the University due to family financial crisis. I went to see West during his office hours, told him the story, and asked for his help keeping her in school. Sitting at a desk covered in message slips for speaking engagements, West became upset at the thought of her withdrawal. “She is just beginning to live the life of the mind,” he told me. “I’ll go to the president for the money if I have to.”

But first we headed out the door and over to the financial-aid office, where West lobbied for extra help.

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West acted as an exemplary mentor – he saw trouble on the horizon for his student and acted immediately to keep her in school. In that moment, even though I did not understand fully what professors did, West showed me why I might want to become one.

Mentoring is often mentioned on campus in terms of faculty and student success and retention, a way to make our numbers better. But beyond pragmatic reasons, there is one powerful argument for developing mentoring relationships in the academy. As in the Odyssey, inspired mentoring can work magic. Mentor, the goddess Athena in disguise, takes Telemachus on a journey from indecisive youth to a real leadership. There is an element of the spiritual in good mentoring, as the right words, seemingly sent from Athena herself, can launch people onto new paths, projects, and even careers. Given such powerful examples, the idea of mentoring in the academy would seem likely to crackle with energy. However, mentoring, both in everyday campus discussions and in the literature on the academy, seems almost extinct, replaced by networking, self-help, and individual initiative.

In contemporary higher education, the idea of mentoring seems to have broken down. Most startling is the profusion of books that suggest that aspiring academics mentor themselves, or turn for advice to a book rather than to their professors or colleagues. While the literature on business and K-12 are full of books about the importance of providing good mentoring experiences, those in higher education seem to have decided that it is every person for himself or herself.

How did the concept of mentoring fall on such hard times in the academy?

The concept of mentoring, drawn originally from Homer, may just seem outdated, a path back to an academy in which professors retreated with cigars and drinks behind closed study doors to talk shop while their wives cleared the table. Mentoring may connote men and male-dominated institutions, which does not square with more recent ideas about gender and power relations.

The terms “mentoring” and “mentor” also get applied to relationships that do not involve the commitment required. Recently, I’ve been invited to participate in speed-mentoring, in which people meet for a few minutes each to discuss common interests. Evidence from the field of mentoring shows that relationships that last over a year have positive value – not those shorter than a commercial break on television.

Colleges and universities can develop well-thought-out structures that encourage mentoring, or bring people together to share experiences and advice, but the individual participants must breathe life into these structures. If people believe that these relationships are full of power and potential, they will summon the spirit of mentoring and great things can occur.

At times as a professor, I have simply told my students that I believed in them, and that I believed that they could accomplish their goals. Against pretty steep odds, those events often came to pass. In my senior year at Princeton, the late Professor Michael Jimenez told me that I could be successful in graduate school and beyond, that I could go “all the way.” His words shot me forward, and I owe a lot to those words and the person who spoke them.

Russell Olwell ’91 is professor of history and director of GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) at Eastern Michigan University. GEAR UP works to help low-income students prepare for post-secondary education.