When a student steps onto a college campus for the first time, it can often seem extremely large. Then, when they enter the workforce, the new world somehow feels even larger. However, one thing that can allow them to thrive in these new environments is finding a mentor. Millennials are constantly encouraged to find the right mentor to help them navigate these large new worlds, but what is the best way to direct these new relationships, for both the mentors and millennial mentees?
During my four years as an engineering student at the University of Florida, I have had the opportunity to interact with a multitude of amazingly talented people, ranging from students and professors to managers in industry. I would like to introduce you to three standout mentors I have met who come from very different areas: Sarvenaz Laussermair, Catherine Tradd and David Whitney. They exemplify top-notch mentorship for millennials, and they come from very different areas and backgrounds.
Laussermair is a recent graduate from the University of Florida and a new program manager at Nielsen’s Global Engineering organization. Tradd is approaching 10 years in industry and is currently working as a business process lead at Solar Turbines. Whitney is currently serving as the assistant director of the Engineering Innovation Institute at the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.
Without these three people in my life, I would definitely not be where I am today. I am excited to share some of their advice and commentary on maximizing your experiences as both a mentor and a mentee.
- Who has shaped your career more, the mentees you have taken on or the mentors you have had?
Laussermair: I have learned a lot about myself from all of my mentees, and I have them to thank for showing me that the benefits of a mentoring relationship are not just one-sided. As for my career though, my mentors have had the most impact in shaping my long-term goals. I have always wanted to be a leader in a large technology organization, and thanks to the mentors I have made who have achieved these types of roles, I see that there are so many different paths to success. Without learning about all these unique career paths, it would have been easy for me to feel demotivated whenever I strayed from my perceived “ideal path.”
Tradd: I’m approaching 10 years in industry, so I’d say I’ve had a lot more mentors than mentees. I can attest that the best way to learn is to teach, and I’m starting to reach a more balanced point where I’ve had some really influential mentee relationships that are starting to rival how much my mentors have shaped me. I hope that with time, this balance of mentor and mentee influence continues.
Whitney: Both, but I’m not dead yet, so my answer is not complete. Two of my mentors were deeply instrumental in guiding my professional career and personal life. Also, a select handful of UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering students have dramatically impacted me — in ways I didn’t think possible — with their abilities, ambitions and attitudes.
- When you were in college, what mentoring relationships did you have and how did they impact you?
Laussermair: When I started off in college, I was often a “secret mentee” because I didn’t want to take time away from the busy, successful people that I looked up to. If I admired someone’s leadership skills or technical capabilities, I would simply learn by observing them, but this caused me to miss out on forming the deeper connections that are so important in mentoring relationships. It was only when I started becoming a formal mentor to others that I realized mentors get just as much out of a mentoring relationship as the mentee, and I started cultivating relationships with my mentors.
Tradd: I was very lucky in college. I had upper-level students in the student section of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, as well as some wonderful teaching assistants and professors who made themselves available. Three come to mind as the most influential: two upper-level students named Julia and Nate and one of my professors and advisor, Dr. Harovel Wheat.
Julia was amazing — she was a mechanical engineer a couple of years ahead of me in school. She was a student leader, at the top of her class, articulate and very well-thought-of in the department. She represented everything I wanted to be. Asking her questions and getting her advice about decision-making was incredibly valuable to my development into a successful student and leader.
Nate was an upper-level student who was also amazing — he was incredibly charismatic and strong technically but unfocused academically. He taught me a lot about realizing what was important about time management, and my observations of him helped me avoid the pitfalls of not prioritizing coursework over other priorities.
Dr. Wheat was a different influence on my life. She gave me a lot of structure and perspective on managing the variety of things I was trying to accomplish.
Whitney: I did not have mentoring relationships as an undergraduate in college. Although I do not have that experience to frame my viewpoints about mentoring during a students’ undergraduate years, I am convinced mentoring — or adult supervision and guidance — of college students produces “win-win” outcomes for all parties involved.
- After recently graduating, how has your perspective on mentoring changed?
Laussermair: My belief in the importance of mentoring has increased. I have also broadened my perspective by learning the difference between a mentor and a sponsor and the fact that it is crucial to have both. While a mentor can help give advice or guidance, a sponsor is someone in a high level of leadership or authority who is willing to speak highly of you to other leaders, advocate for you, trust you with difficult assignments and put their reputation on the line for you. Naturally, sponsors are much more difficult to get than mentors.
- How do you choose the people you wish to take under your wing as mentees?
Laussermair: One of the top qualities that stands out to me is being proactive. This is why I have never turned down someone who approached me for advice or a formal mentoring relationship. As for taking someone under my wing, it is often someone who shares qualities that have been important to me in my own personal and professional growth, whether it’s dedication in reaching a goal, eagerness to learn or interest in self-improvement.
Tradd: The first part of it depends on what kind of a mentoring commitment is needed. If I do not have the capacity to support my part of the relationship, it’s not a good time to enter into this kind of relationship (A lot of times when potential mentors are being non-responsive or unhelpful, it’s not personal; they are just too busy to help you with what you need, or your needs are so large that they cannot possibly meet your needs).
The second part is that I truly believe you cannot force a mentoring relationship. You can be assigned a mentor, but you cannot force the relationship to be successful or fruitful for the mentor or the mentee. My personal strategy is to offer help, and then give the person I offer a chance to actively accept it. Meaning, I will offer to be a resource and ask that the person schedule time with me if they would like to talk further about the topic. If a potential mentee approaches me, in the first meeting, I work to establish a clear understanding of what each of us is expecting from the relationship and what success looks like.
Whitney: I am fortunate to have the best students select me to mentor them. The student who “gets it” is the one I want to associate with — as a guide or as a mentor to them. I recommend students seeking mentoring relationships (to) identify something of value they can bring to the mentor-mentee relationship. “Value” is in the eyes of the beholder, so students should remain open-minded as to what they should bring to the relationship. A mentor-mentee relationship does not work if it is one-sided.
- What advice would you give to a millennial looking for a mentor but not sure how to establish a mentoring relationship?
Laussermair: First, I would say don’t feel guilty like I did! As long as you are willing to put in the effort, your mentor will not see the relationship as a “burden.” The most important lesson here is that the mentee does have to put in effort. For example, don’t just show up to lunch with your mentor with nothing to talk about. Make a list of questions, learn about your mentor and ask them if there is any way you can help them in return. Remember that as a millennial, you may have knowledge that is quite beneficial to someone who is in an older generation — offer to teach them something, too!
Second, don’t think that there needs to be anything official or formal about your mentoring relationship. I don’t even refer to my longest standing mentor as a mentor; we have simply kept in touch over the years and talk through our career moves and challenges together.
Tradd: My best advice when seeking a mentor is to be very specific about the help you need and be very respectful of the mentor’s time. Meaning, don’t ask for something someone can’t help you with and if you get time with someone, use it wisely. I think three things establish a strong mentoring relationship:
- Do you have a problem and are open to receiving and seeking help to solve that problem?
- Do you resonate with and trust the person you are asking to help you?
- Are you ready to act and follow up on that advice?
If these three things are present, I think mentoring relationships are ready to bloom.
Whitney: My advice is simple for millennials seeking guidance from mentors: Give two times what you receive. Most mentors provide valuable and timeless guidance to mentees; mentees, in turn, can “give back” to mentors in powerful and meaningful ways. This giving back can be demonstrated by mentees in practical ways: Be determined to do their very best; exercise a willingness to help others; remain respectful and appreciative; and always stay diligent in attempting to change the world for the better. When mentees do these things, their mentors will be deeply and eternally proud of the mentees they guided.
- What advice do you have for mentoring millennials specifically?
Tradd: In terms of mentoring millennials, they’re amazing — enjoy their energy and seamless comfort with technology and all things virtual and their flexibility and desire to achieve work-life balance. Don’t let your assumptions about their generation slant your approach to helping them — take the time to understand the individual. Learn as much from them as possible. Make sure there are no gaps with people or communication skills that will hinder their performance and upward mobility. Encourage them to build strong relationships with senior people in their groups to understand what the current definition of success looks like.
Bio: Erin Winick is currently a fourth-year mechanical engineering student at the University of Florida. She is the founder of Sci Chic, a company that produces customizable science and engineering inspired jewelry, accessories and educational resources using 3D printing and laser cutting. Erin is also currently serving as a University Innovation Fellow within the University of Florida Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering Innovation Institute. Erin has interned at John Deere, Solar Turbines and Bracken Engineering during her time at UF and will be interning with Keysight this summer.