When the Master Makes Mistakes

What mentors have to learn from their mentees

By Anna Holtby

June 15, 2021 •

From fairy godmothers to wise wizards, many of our favourite stories feature sage advisers lending a helping hand to the less experienced. These relationships form in real life, too, albeit with less wand-waving. Students and new professionals seek out mentors with the hope they’ll learn skills, build confidence and make connections. It’s clear what motivates the mentee to join the relationship — but what about the mentor?

Last summer, Shelly Jun, ’15 BSc, ’17 MSc, mentored a U of A student who had received funding through the Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI). Jun was helping her as the student looked at how some of the URI’s partner agencies use evaluation to inform their programs.

Jun, a research co‑ordinator with the Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth, and Families, says she doesn’t consider herself a natural mentor. But she made the leap for a simple reason: she remembered how much mentorship had meant to her when she was a student. Like her mentee, Jun had also received funding and mentorship through the URI, an experience that helped her get into graduate school.

Here are four things Jun learned from her experiences as a mentee and mentor.

1: Put the mentee first.

As a mentee, Jun learned more from supervisors who treated her like a colleague rather than an employee. “What probably affected me the most, and encouraged me to follow their example, were the mentors who were invested in my growth,” she says.

2: Don’t think you’re Yoda.

Once she started mentoring, Jun quickly realized she would not just be wisely doling out advice. In fact, being a mentor brought up some personal challenges, she says. “It helped me identify areas for personal development, including patience and active listening.”

3: It’s not your project to perfect.

Jun noticed her own hesitations to let go when it came to mentees’ projects. “It’s easy to fall into the mindset of wanting to do all the work myself,” she says. “But I’m getting better at delegating and being patient with the iterative nature of the process.”

4: It’s a beautiful circle.

While a mentee may feel intimidated by their more‑experienced colleague, Jun says the mentor should be equally ready to learn. “A lot of my learning has been around seeing my flaws and then having the opportunity to try again. And try again.”

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