Being barely 21, I already have the great and terrifying opportunity to serve as a mentor in several programs.
Growing up, and when I began my path in STEM I never really had a mentor. I only got my first official mentor when I was around 18 years old. Meaning, that I was left to figure out a lot of things alone. However, having these experiences of being a mentee, also gave me a unique opportunity, of becoming a much better mentor. Knowing, what I needed from mentors, helped me learn a lot about how to serve my mentees to the best of my knowledge. So what did I learn?
Not simply sit and stare back, but truly listen to your mentees. Listen with compassion. When they are opening up about hardships, and they might say things like: I know it doesn't sound that bad, I know that X is much harder than my issue of Y, etc. Reassure them, their problems are valid, no matter what they are. Yes, when we in college, work, and so on. Those old math problems in high school seem like the easiest challenge now. But tell them, how it wasn't easy for you at that point either. I might be able to do an integral within matters of seconds now, but when I was first doing it, it definitely was a much bigger challenge. We grow and develop throughout our life. Listen to their words, and reflect on them with compassion. Sometimes all they truly need is for you to listen to them first.
Be honest with them. I know this isn't an easy feat for any human being, but being honest with your mentees can greatly help them in their future. Especially when it comes to STEM, I know it is hard to look a bright-eyed 14-15 years old in the eye and tell them about reality, when it comes to the hardness of their future classes, work, etc. HOWEVER, By being honest with them, you give them a very valuable tool. Time. They get time to prepare and knowledge to use in the future. When I tell my mentees about being cut off in Zoom Meetings, I give them tools to handle such situations. I tell them my hardships, and by doing so, prepare them. By facing these hardships, we have all grown and learned a lot. Our responsibility is to give them our knowledge on handling them, getting over them, etc. Don't sugar coat it, but reflect on it.
The typical mentee-mentor relationship is mainly based on this idea, that your mentee will show up and ask questions. It is amazing when they have questions, however, most of these questions will be often quite vague. Don't get me wrong, we all need general advice on certain topics. By asking your mentee questions, you can lead them to realizations. Not solely about how they truly should continue down a path, but also by leading them to the right questions. This is especially great when they are working on projects! It allows them to arrive at findings, they are looking for, but also developing their critical thinking in the process. It also allows you to get to know what you can truly help them with, getting to know what type of mentoring they truly need.
This something often overlooked in mentee-mentor meetings. I don't mean your general first time meeting them type introduction. But by often reflecting on the areas, you have a little or a lot of fo expertise in. If they struggle to get started with choosing a topic, it helps if you can offer different paths. Don't just introduce yourself, by telling them what you do. Tell them exactly what you can help them with. For example by telling them: I am happy to offer advice on coding languages, or learning about leadership, a bias I have experienced, etc. Be exact with them.
And remind them about these! When they start going down a route of a certain topic, respond not just by answering but also by offering what you can do for them. Your help is far beyond just what your job, or what your exact research is. You have soft skills, you have extra lessons. From managing your time to certain challenges to mental health, etc. There is a LOT you can tell them about!
Tell them: I don't know
Never in a million years, and I repeat never pretend to be an expert in everything or anything. Don't deceive them by pretending to know every coding language or even everything about a certain coding language. Rather, tell them the reality: I don't know, I sometimes have to google X or Y, I used Stackoverflow, Github, etc. to do this, I ASKED! Tell them how you work with other people, to know more, together. This also applies if they ask a question or about a certain topic, you are not the best at, most familiar with. However, this doesn't mean to just leave them with an I don't know. Offer them alternatives.
I don't know BUT: Let me get back to you later about this, you can talk to X or Y at this contact about this, You can read more about this here. Be a useful resource to them. Ask your friends, your own mentors, colleagues, etc. if you feel stuck with helping them. Help by researching what they asked about, and give them contacts, resources to learn more.
This is not only a crucial point because it teaches you a lot about new things, but also because this way you can teach them a very important point in life. No one knows everything or really anything. Not knowing is all about not knowing YET. Tell them about your first day on a job, your first internship, etc. Tell them how you didn't know anything, and how that was okay. You didn't know YET. You were committed to learning and worked hard on asking those who did know.
So to wrap up today's post, I believe the most important idea to keep in mind is to stay human, and understanding, and kind with your mentees. You are here to help them, and along the way, you will learn a lot from them too.