Mentors go 1-on-1 with the future

By Brian Wallheimer | Published Wednesday, March 23, 2016
mentoring

Kenda Resler-Friend (left at top and in above photo) and Mindy Boyer will become co-workers for Dow AgroSciences after Boyer graduates in May.
Photo by Tom Campbell

Gary Bauer, BS ’71, starts off semesters teaching at Western Michigan University by reading a short essay by the late Robert J. Hastings called The Station.

The author likens life to being on a train and watching the scenery pass while anxiously awaiting arrival at one particular point. All the while, intent on only one place, the rider misses the beauty of the journey.

Sooner or later, however, we must realize there is no one station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip. The station is only a dream.

Bauer, who teaches in the Cooley Law School, will teach his students a great many things from a syllabus and books, but he says students far too often need to know that their paths will change, mistakes will shape them for better or worse and they can’t possibly know at 19 what and who they will be in even a few years.

“Throughout our entire lives, we focus on the next big thing, but what the students don’t often realize is that it’s not the station, it’s the journey. I tell students to enjoy the ride,” Bauer said.

Besides the students he teaches and advises in Michigan, Bauer now has the chance to pass that wisdom to fellow Boilermakers. He’s part of the Agicultural Alumni Mentoring Program, in its fourth year in the College of Agriculture.

Donya Lester, executive director of Purdue’s Agricultural Alumni Association, says the program is a simple one – pairing students with alumni who can give advice and become a foundational part of student networks – but one that provides significant benefit to both sides.

“The thing that adds value for alumni is when they feel like they’ve made a difference for a student. All of us identify with that. We all remember people who helped us,” Lester said. “For students, if we can connect them to great information or to a person in industry who helps them find a job path, then we’ve added value for them, and they’re a lot more likely to come back and be a mentor themselves or be involved in ag alumni in some other way.”

Kenda Resler-Friend, MS ’91, external communications and media relations leader at Dow AgroSciences in Indianapolis, remembers looking out from West Lafayette as a student and wondering about opportunities. Back then, she noted, it wasn’t so easy to find people who could answer her questions or help guide her during her early professional years. Google was still a ways off.

“I really didn’t have anybody back when I was in college. I didn’t know what the options were. I was a granddaughter of farmers and the daughter of teachers. I didn’t know what existed,” she said. “I don’t think I knew how to pursue someone in industry.

“I’m just tickled to be able to show today’s students the world that’s out there. It’s like being able to tell your younger self things you wish someone would have told you. It’s a way for me to give back, and it’s not really that big of a time investment.”

Donya Lester (left) listens to students Chloe Jefferson and Luke Wildhaber at the Ag Alumni Fish Fry in Indianapolis. Lester, executive director of the Purdue Agricultral Alumni Association, started the mentoring program four years ago. Photo by Tom Campbell

Lester and student organizers looked at several mentoring and networking programs at peer institutions and decided to take some of the good ideas out there and tweak them to best suit students and alumni.

By making the program one semester long, students can participate frequently and connect with more alumni. And while some people cannot commit to an entire year, they can often be involved for the few months required in the Purdue program.

“Projecting your workload out for a full school year is tougher than planning for 90 days or so,” Lester said.

The informality of the program allows paired students and alumni to make the relationship their own, based on their connection. The only real rule is: Be available.

That means different things to different people. Some mentors can visit campus often or can host students at their place of business. But most often it means frequent emails, some phone calls or a Skype session.

“Each mentoring pair has different goals and availabilities to meet face-to- face,” Lester said. “That just means that no matter where you are, you can be a mentor.”

Students who want to participate in a mentoring program are surely going to have specific questions for their mentors. But a good mentor can do more than shoot back answers.

Mentors can often look back at their own college years and anticipate the needs of students. Bauer remembers the insecurity he had as a student, worrying about how he was stacking up against his peers.

“It’s a constant tension and fear for them, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” Bauer said. “They don’t realize what they can bring to bear. They focus on everyone else.”

Mindy Boyer, a senior from Kirklin, Indiana, majoring in agricultural communication and applied agricultural economics, has gotten advice from her mentors on time management, campus clubs that can help her gain valuable experience, and career path options she might have not considered. But just as important is the comfort of knowing that others have been in her shoes and that she’s doing well for herself.

“I’ve been able to build my confidence,” Boyer said. “Seeing their paths and following in their footsteps reassured me that I’m doing this Purdue thing the right way.”

Gary Bauer (left) is active in the College of Agriculture’s mentoring program, but also assists students such as Khadija Swims (center) and Ashley Gillespie as a faculty member at Western Michigan University. Photo by Andrew Jason

Zach Frazier, a senior from Butler, Pennsylvania, majoring in animal sciences and agricultural economics, said his mentors helped reset his career path. He had been intent on finding a career in policy in Washington, D.C., out of school but took an internship in industry based on some advice he got.

“It was a combination of things we did and talked about – talking about their stories and seeing the possibilities out there,” Frazier said.

He encourages friends and peers to join the mentorship program because of his experiences.

“They should do it not because they want to get to a shortsighted goal like I was. Do it because of the intangible benefits,” Frazier said. “You can learn something about yourself, learn something about the world. Things will happen you don’t expect.”

Lester says students and mentors are paired carefully. If a student wants to pursue a job in a particular field, there might be dozens of possible mentors. But field is just one of the parameters that might matter to students. They also care about where they will work and the type of company.

So far, there have been few instances in which a mentor couldn’t be found for a student, but it has happened. And since students can participate as often as they like, there will always be a need for more alumni to volunteer their time and wisdom.

Lester says that if you’re thinking that maybe in a few years when you have more experience you’d be a better mentor, think again. It’s not too soon.

“We need more people from a broad range of experiences and industries and from all parts of their careers to make better matches,” she said. “We especially need young mentors, people who have been here more recently, know more about course offerings, professors and campus life and can probably better understand the needs of our younger students.”

Boyer hopes others will realize that the mentoring program makes a real difference by enhancing students’ educations.

“It’s good to learn things in a traditional classroom setting, but I learned how to apply those things
in the real world through my mentors,” she said. “It’s something that’s easy, and it’s very important.”

To learn about mentoring opportunities visit: https://ag.purdue.edu/agalumni/Pages/Alumni-Mentoring.aspx