What is a mentor?

Context: As the newest mentor on the BEEC team, I thought it was important to ask myself the question “what is a mentor?”

A common way to begin an essay is to provide the definition of a word from a reputable dictionary. I hate this way of beginning an essay, not because it is overused (although it is) but because it lacks creativity. Still, it has a use, and for the purpose of this essay, it is actually quite apposite. So here we go… According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a mentor is “a person who offers support and guidance to another; an experienced and trusted counselor or friend.”[1] My personal experience supports this definition of a mentor, but it also tells me that this definition is missing a crucial component. To the OED’s definition I would add that a mentor is an influence that changes one’s life. I have been lucky enough to have two mentors who meet this definition, and it is they who will demonstrate the extended meaning of mentor which I have articulated here.

The first mentor who changed my life was one of my undergraduate professors at UCLA. I enrolled in one of his courses because I was somewhat interested in the content, but I came out of it a with a thirst for knowledge that I had never felt before. It was not the material per se but rather the way this professor presented it: every idea, detail, and question challenged my assumptions about the world. More powerfully, his approach to thinking and knowledge in general, so enlightening as it was, toppled my own way of thinking and established a foundation of knowledge that I still hold today. And that was only after one course! After I expressed a strong interest in learning more, the professor took me under his wing. He gave me books to read, hired me as his assistant, and groomed me for graduate study. I read things differently, interpreted material creatively, and viewed the world critically. This mentor taught me the importance of inventiveness and imagination in thought, and in doing so, he taught me how to think.

As with my first mentor, I started working with my second mentor on a whim. I had been physically weak throughout my twenties, the time of life when most people are at their strongest. Fed up with my quality of life, I started working with a personal trainer. We started slow, but eventually the momentum picked up to the point where I was training five days a week. Not only did my trainer guide me through the technical aspects of the process, but he also motivated me to constantly work harder. Unexpectedly, as I trained more frequently and with more intention, I became a different person. Qualities I never possessed like discipline, determination, and perseverance became indispensable aspects of my character. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, though I imagine it was a mixture of both, my trainer had been developing these qualities in me day in and day out. They didn’t come easy and they are always being improved upon, but these qualities can’t be learned — they must be earned. This mentor, then, by constantly helping me redefine what I am capable of, taught me who I am.

Undoubtedly, both these mentors had an influence on my life that was so great it changed me on a fundamental level: one taught me the value of thought-work and one taught me the value of hard work. Both mentors gave me something I hadn’t possessed before, and in doing so, both caused paradigm shifts in my life. One way of thinking overtaken by another way of thinking, one way of living overtaken by another way of living — both entirely new experiences that supplanted an outdated precursor. My mentors offered me support and guidance, and my trust in their experience is undeniable; for this, they fit the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of mentor. By altering the course of my life, however, they have also demonstrated that mentor has an additional, and dare I say, more accurate meaning.

[1] “mentor, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/116575?rskey=qSc6FG&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed February 24, 2020).

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