College was a mystery for me; I knew I had to go but had no clue what it would take to thrive and finish my degree. My understanding of college came from stories from my older brother, “MTV Spring Break” videos and college classics like “Animal House.” Coming to Kalamazoo College as an out-of-state, first-generation student of color, I was eager to learn how best to navigate college life. Although there were very few men of color on campus during my first year, the ones who were served as powerful role models for me.
Aaron Coleman ’09 is one who stepped in for me. He was into poetry and psychology and was really involved on campus. I wanted to study the same things and be a part of the same community. He’s now a rising star in poetry, in a fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis. With his latest collection, “Threat Come Close,” getting rave reviews, I got to see him when he came to New York to do a reading, and we continue to maintain our relationship no matter where we are in the world.
He helped me understand how the College worked, how to get involved in poetry and the importance of being a leader on campus. Similarly, for those of us in the Black Student Organization, he was around to talk about our issues on campus and some of the challenges of being a student of color at K.
Just by his presence, his being open to talking to me, and showing me what success could look like, he made a difference for me.
I tried to do the same thing for Mara Richman ’14, to help her as she became a leader in civic engagement and student government as well as in psychology. I met her again this past March in Budapest, where we both studied abroad. She went back to study psychology at Eötvös Loránd University and is launching what’s going to be a remarkable career. When we got together, she mentioned I was part of the reason she went to Hungary, because she saw some of the things I was able to do there.
Though that’s really gratifying, and it’s also nice to officially “pay it forward,” there’s so much more to mentoring than the good feeling you get from being altruistic. In my work as director of people and community development in the Division of Teaching and Learning at the New York City Department of Education, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to create a culture that fosters mentoring relationships. For students, it is so validating to hear from someone who’s had the same experiences they’re having, and to learn from them how to avoid the mistakes they made and how to get the most out of work and learning. When you’re a mentor, you’re providing support that students may not be able to get anywhere else, and you’re helping to ensure that another generation navigates the process of getting a degree and claiming the opportunities that will change their and their families’ lives—and make life better for everyone, including yourself.
Just as important, being a mentor can be transformative for you. Thinking about how to provide advice to someone else helps concretize your own experiences. It gives you the opportunity to reflect on what you’ve done and the decisions that you’ve made. It provides you with a narrative that can inform your thinking going forward.
That’s especially important in the context of the liberal arts, because an education like the one you get at K is all about finding the connections between seemingly unrelated subjects—in my case, poetry and organizational development—and finding ways to apply what you’ve learned to dynamic, changing situations. Talking about it with someone else opens you to insights that can be incredibly valuable.
So while being a mentor is rewarding because you’re doing the right thing, it’s also beneficial because it lets you keep on learning, as well. And that’s what we’re talking about when we say “More in a Lifetime.”