In honor of National Mentoring Month: Reflections on the power of mentorship

I’ll never forget my first true professional mentor. 

His name was Joe, and we met in the most improbable way. In the summer of 1994, I was a 20-year-old studying Russian at Middlebury’s famed summer language school. The first week, my peers and I noticed an older gentleman hanging around our dorm and dining hall, but he didn’t appear to be a professor.

Falling into step together on the path from the cafeteria to our classroom building, he and I struck up conversation – and I’m so glad we did. Joe was 72. After a successful career on Wall Street, he endowed a Chair at his alma mater, Yale, on China-Russia relations. Recognizing the importance of this tenuous relationship on geopolitics, he not only invested in a professor’s scholarship, but he also decided to learn Chinese and Russian himself. He was at Middlebury as a student, living in the dorms and eating in the dining halls along with all the college kids. He outworked us all and provided an example of how to be a lifelong learner that I will never forget.

He and I became friends that summer, and kept in touch after. When I reached senior year and began considering career options, Joe was right there, asking powerful questions about my skills and dreams. He then introduced me to someone he knew at a big Wall Street firm where I ended up getting my first job. Joe’s support didn’t end there – as I started my career in finance, he remained a supportive, compassionate and encouraging mentor.

In one of our last conversations, I asked him how I could ever repay all he had done for me. He smiled and said quietly, “promise me you’ll do the same for someone else one day”.

Joe, I think of you daily with gratitude greater than I can adequately articulate. I wish you could be here to visit the classes I teach at Vanderbilt, because your influence is all over my teaching “side hustle”. When you and I first met, you taught me the value of a great mentor. Without you, my career would have launched differently and very possibly, with far less momentum. In being a great mentor to me, you also planted the seed to seek becoming a mentor myself.  I don’t know that I’ll ever impact anyone the way you impacted me, but – thanks to what you taught me – I try each and every day. The gift of your mentorship lives on in me, and, I hope, in those to whom I pass on your wisdom when asked how a student can thank me. “Promise me”, I say, “that you’ll do the same for someone else one day.”

Thank you, Joe, for all of it.

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