By Mark Matheson, English professor and director of the MUSE Project
I’ve had the privilege of teaching here at the U for more than 25 years. As a rather timid undergraduate at another university, I was greatly helped by professors who took a personal interest in my education. I’m not sure if I thought of them as mentors, but that’s certainly what they were. My colleagues at the U — almost to a person — speak of having the same undergraduate experience. We talk often of how much we owe to professors and other people who mentored us in college, and we want to contribute in similar ways to the lives of our own students.
Mentoring relationships develop organically, but as a student you can take steps to help make them happen. If a professor or university leader impresses you, seek that person out.
Consider the experience of Congressman John Lewis, who spoke last year at the U about his own experience in finding a mentor. As a teenager in rural Alabama he was listening to the family radio one Sunday in 1955, and he heard a voice preaching the possibility of social and political transformation through love. Lewis had never heard such a voice, and he felt a flood of hope. The injustices of the Jim Crow South weighed heavily on him, and here was a way forward — a vision of “making a way out of no way.” He listened carefully for the name of the speaker, who turned out to be a young preacher from Montgomery named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewis sought out Dr. King, who became his mentor for life.
Congressman Lewis’s story testifies to the importance of student initiative in building relationships with mentors. As an undergraduate student, you might sense the power of mentoring but still wonder how to find a mentor at the U in 2017. Here are some very practical tips:
- Visit your professors during office hours. This is a widely available opportunity, but unfortunately students rarely take advantage of it. Feelings of shyness and awkwardness can be an obstacle, but you’ll overcome them. Of course the professor might not eventually become your mentor, but you’ll have gained some important experience. If the regular office hours don’t work for you, email your professors or talk to them after class to set up a specific appointment. Do this early in the term. Do it every term.
- Apply for an internship. Good internships give you an opportunity to work individually with professionals here at the U and in the broader community. We have excellent offices on campus that can help you find the right internship for you, including the Hinckley Institute and Career Services. Recent research suggests that internship experience is the first thing employers look for on a college graduate’s resume. Engaging in one internship is good — doing two is even better.
- Get in touch with the Office of Undergraduate Research. This group of wonderful people can set you up with an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Progarm (UROP) assistantship, in which you’ll work directly with a professor doing research or a creative project. And you’ll get paid to do it. The U is a major research university, so take advantage of the opportunity to work with professors recognized as world leaders in their fields.
- Get involved with events sponsored by the University of Utah MUSE Project. This is the office with which I personally work, and we’re dedicated to connecting undergraduate students with opportunities for engaged and transformative learning. Through your attendance at MUSE events — including Lunchtime Lectures, Casual Friday gatherings and activities with our annual keynote speaker — you’ll meet extraordinary professors, community leaders and people of international stature (like Congressman Lewis, who was our guest last year). Our new MUSE Professors program has brought together an exciting cohort of faculty dedicated to undergraduate education. These professors come from every college that teaches undergraduate students, and be sure to look for them soon on a special page of the MUSE website.
So you get the idea: To find a mentor, put yourself in the position of interacting regularly with professors and other university professionals. It’s not difficult to do, and the potential benefits for you as a student are great. All of us in the older generation can attest to this, and many of us consider it our duty to pay forward what was given so abundantly to us. Only it doesn’t feel like a duty — we simply find it immensely rewarding to work with University of Utah students.
Please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to talk further about mentoring and about finding mentors here at the U.