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.