When Kamala Harris became the nation's first Black and South Asian vice president, she shared "I may be the first woman to hold this office. But I won't be the last." In her speech, Madam Vice President Harris honored the women who paved the way for her historic achievement. Her message resonated deeply with me, as I also represent many firsts in my family.
As a child of immigrants from El Salvador, I am the first in my family to have made it to and through higher education, achieving a bachelor's, master's, and a doctoral degree. These important milestones wouldn't have been possible without the care and investment of mentors throughout my life. More importantly, I have had the pleasure and privilege to have mentors who were Latina just like me.
My First Mentor
I grew up in a majority Latino/a community. It wasn't until college that I felt like a fish out of water. As a first-generation college student, I only had a few colleges on my radar: those that happened to send a representative to our college center at my high school and the ones I was lucky enough to live by and could actually see. Out of these options, I ended up attending a private religious university in Southern California comprised of predominately white students, where I was one of the few students of color.
As my mentor, she made time to meet with me to learn about my career interests, about my strengths and growth opportunities, and about who I was and might be as a potential leader.
My first year of college was the first time I experienced outright racism, where many of my white peers deliberately avoided me. Experiences such as these had a profound effect on my ability to succeed and not too long after, I was starting to fail my courses. A Latina professor on campus --one of the very few non-white faculty-- heard about me, and without ever meeting me, she decided to take me under her wing. When we met, we got along so well, and thus began a beautiful mentor-mentee relationship that lasted nearly a decade.
When my mentor and I met, she was an early career academic, and I was a freshman in college. As my mentor, she made time to meet with me to learn about my career interests, about my strengths and growth opportunities, and about who I was and might be as a potential leader. Sometimes, these conversations turned to more personal ones, like balancing a new partner while also going to graduate school. Thus, our mentorship relationship was open to both personal and professional guidance.
The mentee has the opportunity to receive personalized guidance and insight while the mentor is provided a space to reflect on their professional journey in ways that can support the personal and professional growth of others.
Over the years, these conversations became more honed and refined as we came to know each other more. More importantly, she talked to me about systemic issues, such as racism, and throughout our mentor-mentee relationship, she provided insight on how I might navigate it as an emerging leader, which was informed by her own experiences in dealing with this as a Latina leader herself. However, this kind of relationship was only made possible by my willingness to be honest with her about the challenges I faced.
As the years went by and our mentorship relationship waned, I realized I had learned so much from her. She had been my go-to for recommendation letters, feedback, and guidance for so long. I had never had a mentor before, so she provided the blueprint for the kind of mentorship I knew would be most beneficial to me.
My most recent mentor is my former supervisor, who is another phenomenal Latina leader. Not all supervisors will become your mentors, but because I admired her leadership, I sought to be honest and proactive about learning from her. Luckily, she was willing to teach me and share her insight as well. Thus, mentorship takes many forms and happens in different ways.
Mentors can support both your personal and professional success. This is dependent on what you seek from your mentor and how forthright you'd like to be about both your personal and professional growth.
Mentor-mentee relationships are a two-way street. My mentors have always been willing to write my recommendation letters, champion me for opportunities, and answer my most burning questions about leveling up my career. However, it is important, as a mentee, to not just make requests but also ask questions about your mentor's life story and how they got to where they are. Mentors are more than just a bank of knowledge; they are people just like you who are eager to turn their personal leadership stories into actionable guidance and advice to support others.
Mentors will come and go throughout your career, and that is okay. While I was blessed to have had my first mentor support me for several years, I've realized that many amazing leaders have made their mark on my personal and professional career path. The length of time isn't what characterizes mentorship. It's the quality and impact of the relationship that matters.
How to Welcome Mentorship
In order to make the most of a mentorship experience, I recommend the following:
Be open to receiving support from others.
Be honest in order to receive personalized support and guidance.
Be invested in learning about your mentor.
It has been my experience that mentorship is a mutually beneficial relationship. The mentee has the opportunity to receive personalized guidance and insight while the mentor is provided a space to reflect on their professional journey in ways that can support the personal and professional growth of others.
If you are a mentee seeking guidance on next steps, I hope you find a mentor who can best support your growth. If you are a mentor seeking someone to inspire and cultivate, thank you for your willingness to share your insights. I know I am forever indebted and grateful to those who were willing to invest in me.
Dr. Vanessa Monterosa currently serves as the Director of Communications for Hack the Hood (HtH) -- a nonprofit committed to economic mobility for communities of color through tech and data literacy empowerment. Prior to joining the HtH team, Dr. Monterosa dedicated seven years to successfully shaping the edtech narrative of Los Angeles Unified --the nation's second-largest school district-- with her work being featured across Common Sense Media, Edutopia, EdSurge, and more. As an Education Pioneer Fellow, she co-authored Los Angeles Unified's first Social Media Policy, and during her tenure, she designed and implemented a nationally recognized digital citizenship program that empowered school leaders to leverage social media in ways that sustain connection, collaboration, and community. Her life's work has centered on advancing research, policy, and practices that support the effective and empowering use of media and technology. Connect with her on LinkedIn and/or follow her on Twitter.