Why a Mentor Matters

Author in Residence  |  by Barbara Gitenstein

Monday, June 10, 2024
Woman mentoring a female colleague

Laddawan punna/Shutterstock

The success of my career of almost 50 years can largely be attributed to my great fortune of having supportive mentors. “Experience is the Angled Road: Memoir of an Academic”details the impact of these extraordinary people in my life.

My first mentors were family members: a grandmother who taught me to recognize pain but always seek joy, and a father who taught me the importance of acknowledging others in celebrating success. At Holton-Arms School, an all-girls school in Maryland, all the leaders were women. I could see up close their personal and different leadership styles, styles that had values embedded in them. Miss Sallie Lurton first modeled for me quality academic leadership and the importance of focusing on student success. These two pillars stood me in good stead throughout my career as an academic administrator.

Once I entered academia as an aspiring professor at the postsecondary level, all my mentors became men. There simply were too few women in positions of authority to offer such support. These men ranged from world-known scholars (C. Hugh Holman) to colleagues for a young faculty member (Frank Patterson and Gail Crump) to supervisors (Donald Mathieu and Mick Ferrari).

I learned to look beyond the most obvious differences in our backgrounds (not just gender, but also religious and personal backgrounds) to understand what it was that we shared. First, they “saw” me; they believed I had potential and sought ways to counsel me to perform at the highest level. Second, they guided me without being directive. Finally, they supported me when I confronted failure. As I write in “Experience is the Angled Road,” these were the first people who helped me aspire to work in academia and, later, to become a college president.

As important as what I learned from these mentors about my own career, I also learned the significance of serving as a mentor myself. As a young faculty member at a regional open access institution, I found myself being sought out by young women studying English and learning to be teachers. I learned as much from the young people as they learned from me. I saw their individual struggles and helped them think through solutions — both professionally and personally. I grew as a young professional providing this support.

My position as mentor grew once I assumed positions of administrative leadership. As chair of a large English Department in a regional institution in the northeast, I was the first administrator to begin to set guiderails for appropriate personal relationships between undergraduate students and faculty members. The 1980s was still a time when the argument pertained, “Well, if she is not in my class this semester, then it’s o.k.”

By the time I became provost at Drake University, I was able to model for young administrators, faculty, and students how to be a principled leader, how to navigate the personal features of my life, being a mother, wife, and administrator.

I was the first woman to serve on the president’s cabinet at Drake. That position allowed me to support the growth potential of young women and men as they assumed administrative roles. I learned to navigate the sexism that was inherent in higher education and to help others learn to do so. In my last year as provost, during a cabinet meeting, an interim senior executive inappropriately joked about the tradition of flashing at the Drake Relays. I was the only one in the room who objected.

My 19 years as president of The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) allowed me to help diversify the community’s notion of leadership. By the time I retired in 2018, the president’s cabinet was a diverse organization with:

  • more women than men in senior roles
  • people of color holding vice presidencies in student affairs, human resources, and most influentially, finance
  • non-cis individuals leading important administrative functions.

I chose each of these talented professionals not only because of their expertise in the area of their responsibilities but also because they were committed to my concept of the importance of team leadership. Furthermore, they were willing to lead from their personal understandings of the world.

None of us could have led TCNJ successfully; together, we could. I had the honor of mentoring these extraordinary people and learning from them as I had in all my previous mentoring roles. In my memoir, when I look back on my career as a senior administrator, I remark with pride just how many aspiring women leaders looked to me as a role model.

To me, mentorship is the foundation for successful leadership teams. It is also the foundation for the kind of rewarding life in academia that we all relish.