University of Southern California

Sarah Bonner
Title
“Be a Good Mentor” – Pass It On (An Open Letter to My Mentors)
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sarah.bonner@marshall.usc.edu

One of the things I most enjoy about academic life is mentoring students and junior faculty. My experiences as a “mentee” have run the gamut on the “quality of mentoring” spectrum. There were individuals who were extremely supportive and helpful and then there were those who used their superior position to create a negative environment for all students and junior faculty. I walked away from the extremely positive experiences with the desire to pay back those individuals and the frustration of knowing that I might not be able to do so, while the extremely negative experiences showed me what to avoid doing.

I have a large debt to repay to three individuals who mentored me extensively – my undergraduate advisors Tom Taylor and John Baxley of Wake Forest University and my Ph.D. mentor Bill Kinney from The University of Michigan, now at the University of Texas. My undergraduate advisors spent countless hours talking with me, listening to me, guiding me, advising me, and probably taking care of me in ways that to this day I do not know. They never once told me they had something else to do, and now I understand fully how much else they had to do. They treated me with the utmost of respect and professionalism, and most important, kindness. Tom and John – here is how I am paying for your time, your interest, your protection, and your guidance. I learn my undergraduate students’ names by the second day of class. Each of them, as an individual, deserves this most minimum level of respect, one that often is not afforded to them by professors. My grading and class rules are completely transparent. All students receive the same information about class expectations in the form of printed slides, previous exams, and typed-up review sheets for exams. I make the playing field as level as possible. I write numerous recommendation letters for scholarships, graduate school, internships, and jobs. Each time I write a letter, I think of all the letters you wrote for me that helped me land where I am. Thank you.

Bill Kinney has mentored me for a number of years, starting in my Ph.D. program and continuing to this day. He still calls me “kid” even though I’m now over 50 and a chaired professor. That’s OK by me – I still need his wise counsel. He has helped me write and rewrite papers, and still does. He insists that people do things the right way, and I pass his insistence on to my Ph.D. students and junior faculty colleagues. He asked me to give my first presentation as an assistant professor, and I try to help my junior colleagues obtain these opportunities as well. He taught me about the relative importance of academic work in the larger context of life by showing me how much he values his family and his health. I try to pass on to my junior colleagues that they must do the same. Bill taught me the most important lesson a mentor can learn. Because he was not my formal advisor, he never has received credit for mentoring me. In this day of ratings and competition, and the constant pressure to self-promote and garner credit for every moment spent in an evaluated activity, this is a particularly difficult lesson to keep putting into practice. For teaching me this and for everything else, thank you, Bill. And, to my mentees, I say: “Be a good mentor. Pass it on.”

I would be remiss if I did not thank the best mentor of all – my husband and colleague Mark Young. He has taught me that, while mentoring and all aspects of academic life are important, that one cannot sustain this effort unless everything is put into perspective. Life is short and taking care of oneself is important for all of us no matter what our chosen pathways are.