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Dear BI Career Consultants:

by Black Issues

Dear BI Career Consultants:

I have identified someone who, if I could get him/her to be my mentor, would be an impressive addition to my career. How do I go about cultivating such a relationship?

Carmen Guevara NeubergerExecutive DirectorAmerican College Personnel Association

Mentors are defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.”  The nouns, counselor and teacher, can be adjudged from a person’s reputation but if possible,  you should try to find other persons of your age and gender, who have  interacted closely with your chosen mentor to affirm that judgment.
As for the adjectives used in this definition, “wise” is a given. The second adjective, trust, is not as readily evident in someone who is “impressive.”  Trust between two persons is built up from exposure and an openness to listen and understand the other. If available and  important to you, having the same ethnic background or broad interests might help get you past the introductory threshold.
If you have not already met the mentor you have identified, you should seek to be introduced. Failing that, try direct contact by writing a note admiring his or her work, and ask for a brief appointment at your potential mentor’s convenience. After the initial meeting and a positive impression, you should send a  follow-up message, commenting on any items of interest you discussed and expressing thanks for his or her willingness to meet and share  ideas. Volunteering to help your mentor in his or her favorite project or to work as an unpaid intern would assure regular exposure and the opportunity to cultivate a long-standing and lasting relationship.
Mentors occupy a very personal role, if the maximum benefit is to be derived by both of you. Simply mentioning someone as an acquaintance or even listing a person as a reference in your resumé does not take full advantage of a mentor-protégé relationship. Ideally, the ties that bind will remain strong throughout your entire career — or even lifetime.
Caryn McTighe Musil
Vice President
Education and Diversity Initiative
Association of American Colleges and Universities

It is important to be clear about what you want and need from a mentor. Mentors can play multiple roles in your professional development. Some mentors are excellent at opening doors for you, while others have more skills in helping you navigate your local terrain. One might critique an article you are working on and another one advise you on a professional career decision. Some mentors are particularly valuable in a local setting; others because of their national or international contacts.
Who can best provide the various kinds of supports you need?  This, in turn, suggests that it is advisable to cultivate more than one mentor and, where possible, to cultivate them in more than one institutional or even geographical location.
 Once you have identified a person, there are a variety of ways to initiate and cultivate that relationship. Do you know someone who knows this person and can either introduce you or pave the way for you to introduce yourself? It always helps to have someone else validate your worth before the potential mentor ever meets you.
If no one can do that for you, simply call — or write a letter, followed by a call — to set up an appointment. Be sure that you have a working knowledge of the accomplishments of this
person so you can speak in an informed way about why you have sought him or her out. Presumably there is some way in which the person’s research or work is related to your own interests. You might therefore need advice about a project you are working on that overlaps with the mentor’s area of expertise.
You might also ask if you could have an information interview to talk about career patterns and learn more about the path that led your mentor to where he or she is today. It would also give you an opportunity to begin to reveal your own aspirations.
Be sure to write a thank-you note immediately after your first interview. Mentoring takes time and you want to be sure to acknowledge your appreciation. Don’t be embarrassed about keeping after them. In fact, it is an essential part of cultivating a relationship. Consider following up the initial interview with seeking advice about something you have written or are working on.
Even if you are not seeking feedback, you might send a complimentary copy of an article or book you have completed or the program from a project you oversaw.  Deepen the relationship by keeping your mentor aware of what you have accomplished and are capable of doing.
If the situation is appropriate, seek ways to be in a more regular working relation with your mentor. Take his or her course, see if you can work on a project your mentor is doing, or propose a panel for a professional meeting that includes your mentor.
A good mentor is much like friendship. The relationship grows in proportion to the investment and exchange sustained over time. A good mentor needs to know who you are and what you are capable of to become your champion, advise you well, and help you get where you want to be. 

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