Friday, May 5, 2017

For the Graduates: Look for the Mentors

This is graduation weekend at Michigan State University. There is a special class of seniors graduating. Yes, when you've been in education for any length of time - secondary or post-secondary, each year there are special seniors graduating. But because there are special seniors each year doesn't diminish the special-ness of this year's seniors...rather, witnessing the growth of a freshman into a senior - this is our fuel - to look for the special-ness in the next group - while cheering on these seniors now "fully embracing" adulthood. :)

I teach a professional development course where my students develop, improve, and refine their job application skills through practice: writing resumes, searching for a job posting that fits their skills and interests, writing for a cover letter, and interviewing for that job. Each month, we have a networking breakfast where students have short (8-minute) conversations with an animal science professional or alumni to learn about their job and career path. My goal is to "take the edge off" the job search process - to make entering "the real world" seem less daunting and scary.

In addition, my students take the Clifton Strengths Finder assessment from Gallup. Many of them have taken the MBTI personality test in ANS 101. I utilize Strengths instead of MBTI in this class because the premise is that strengths drive engagement, and if employees are working to their strengths, they will be happier, more satisfied, more productive employees. However, most students of us don't think about our strengths...and few of us know how to recognize them.

Reading course reflections reiterated this. Several students commented about how it was nice to have "someone else" point out their strengths. Strengths are a combination of skills and talents that we often use so much in our daily lives that we don't recognize that particular way of operating as a strength. Students find it encouraging to have these 'quirks' affirmed as a strength - as something unique to be celebrated - because too often we only focus on our weakness. "We are constantly being reminded of where we fall short - not what we do well."

With that long introduction, my seniors, I want to tell you this:

You are about to enter the lion's den. I'm sorry; I could try to sugar-coat it...but "the rest of your life" is going to be a bumpy ride at times. NOT ALWAYS.

You might have seen some different articles floating around the Buzzfeed universe from your older friends about how 23 is the worst year of your life. I can't speak for everybody - but it was for me, too. There's no amount of preparation to get you through it. We can talk about things to consider in job application packages and budgeting - but, that is only a part of the hardness.

Most of you are out on your very own for the first time. Some of you are living in an entirely new community. Even if you stay in the same community - same university where you went to college (like me) - it's still hard! Because the people who made that place for you - they graduated, too. They are in different cities and towns...and the underclassmen (who now are upperclassmen), well - they just don't get it. They still get to take naps every day at 2pm and pull all-nighters, while you are trying to get used to being in an office 8-9 hours a day.

Oh - I think this was supposed to have a positive spin. Don't most of my writings?

Yes - because in this furnace of 23, you are going to transform into the professional that you were designed to be. The foundation was laid as a student - but, you are still clay. In college, you probably put some shine on (painted with glaze to make you a desirable candidate). However, those of you create pottery know that NOW your form has to first dry out and then be fired to be made firm. As potters will tell you, during the firing process some pots crack; some didn't have a strong form and the heat causes them to crack.

Let me tell you this: you will crack. Why? Because you were not designed to be a pot and hold water: you were designed to shine. But to shine, you have to endure flames through trial-and-error, disappointment, heartbreak, suffering...and there will be times that you may feel you are on the brink of being reduced to ashes.

How do you endure the flames? At this point, I want you to look for a mentor. Your mentor is the one who calls forth life from the suffering, beauty in the ashes, potential in the clay, purpose in the pressure. Your mentor sees you both as who you are - and who you were designed to be. They can stand seeing you in your mess because they know that you are more than a mess. They see your strengths - and they remind you of them when you feel like you're mostly a ball of weaknesses and faults.

I look back upon my journey - the last 20 years and I recognize my mentors and their importance in my life. There will be mentors who stay with you through life - and those who come in for moments: both are valuable.

High school: Deb Hall, my county extension education director - who recognized an entire person of potential beyond the shy, reluctant-to-speak freshman Jessica. Because she encouraged me to step out and speak up, I did. My involvement in county, area, and state 4-H activities would not have happened without her. Without that involvement, I would not be where I am - I would not be who I am. ...and even today, I call on her for advice - and she speaks such encouragement and truth to my heart. She sees my strengths when I can't.

College: Dr. Robert Martin - my college advisor - undergrad and grad school; Dr. FC Parrish, Jr. When I met with Dr. Martin, I always felt like I had the potential to change the world. That I brought light to someone's life...that I could be more than I currently was.

F.C. - man, he changed my life. He taught the Animal Products course - a course I never would have considered taking (until I dropped a super-boring Agronomy class and needed something and my friend Kelli told me to take it with her). He was the first professor who requested to meet with me after class; the first to question me about why ag ed - and the first to plant the seed of graduate school. After his retirement and my graduation, we continued to meet at least monthly for lunches - and I am forever grateful for his friendship. He was a mentor professionally, but even more so a model of how to life life well. He loved his wife; his family; his students; his job and his community - active in his church and community groups.

My first professional job: Lisa Schmidt. She was just a few years older than me - but she modeled professionalism. She was committed to constant growth and development. She wanted to be better - and she was an excellent model of being a woman in the workplace. I was in awe of her composure, her commitment to pursue a graduate degree while working full-time, her dedication to grow spiritually. She continues to inspire me today - in each of those areas, thought the commitment is now her commitment to her family and faith - to make a dramatic career move for the good of her family (and follow the call of God when it's not popular or easily communicated in our culture).

Mentoring relationships can be assigned, of course. In my experience, those have connected me with great people who became friends...but these lifelong mentors - those happened organically (or by providence for those of us who see everything as God-incidence instead of coincidence).  Likewise, there will be people in your personal and professional path placed to be your mentor. If you look for them, you will find them. 

When we break, our mentors are the ones who remind us that we are more. Good mentors practice the art of "kintsugi" in our lives. This practice repairs broken pottery with lacquer dusted with gold, silver, or platinum - treating the breakage and repair as part of the history of the object (Wikipedia, 2017). We are more than objects. The fire of 23 isn't designed to consume us: it calls forth who we really are. ...and our mentors help point out that those cracks: they are beautiful - because they are what gives us power, experience and strength.

My seniors: you are more. You are more than your accomplishments. You are more than your failings. You start a new journey: it will be difficult. It will be joyous. It will break your heart. It might break your spirit, at times. But it will not break you: you. are. more.

And you were designed for hard things! After all, you're a SPARTAN.


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