On Our Minds
by Saad Qureshi
I started my career in the classroom. As part of Teach for America, I taught high school biology in New Haven, Connecticut. When I moved to New York three years later to work on education policy advocacy, I quickly realized I missed having the opportunity to connect with students directly. I had looked up to my own teachers when I was younger, and it meant a lot to be able to connect with my students as not only their teacher, but also their mentor. I wanted to reestablish that connection, so I pursued mentorship outside of work.
The NY LGBT Center (aka the Center) felt like the natural place to volunteer my time and energy because I did not have a gay mentor to look up to when I was growing up, and it was important to me that I provide that opportunity for someone else. At the time, the Center’s program director also informed me that they did not have many mentors of color, which only reinforced my desire to offer my time there. Up until the pandemic shut down much of the city, my mentee—a high school student—and I would meet weekly to talk about a variety of topics. We covered professional areas like schoolwork, creating a resume, and applying to jobs and internships. We also discussed personal topics like managing your own finances, sex education and saftey, and seeking help with drug addiction. Having been a mentor at the Center for almost two years now, I’ve learned quite a bit about what to do as a mentor or mentee.
Tips for future mentors
- If someone asks you to be their mentor, say yes. Chances are that someone is asking you to be their mentor because they currently don’t have the role model they need in their life. So unless you are in a situation where you truly cannot devote your time or energy, it is worth at least trying it out.
- Be patient when forming a relationship with a mentee. You may not click with a mentee right away, and that’s normal. Mentoring at the Center, I rotated mentees for about two to three weeks before I was matched with someone permanently. Keep in mind that it takes time and patience to form a productive mentoring relationship, just like it does with any important relationship.
- Create an environment where your mentee feels they can share openly before diving into an agenda. No matter their life stage, a mentee is probably a little nervous at first to open up to their mentor. So it’s important to let them know early on that you are there to listen and support. I did this by scheduling 1-on-1 check-ins with my mentee at the beginning. Play various board games to easily connect and start asking questions: school, family, etc. Start out with things that students are more comfortable with sharing. Break the ice.
- Establish a meeting routine that works for both of you—and stick to it. Consistency is key when it comes to scheduling time with your mentee. If that means adjusting the schedule so the two of you can truly commit, that’s totally fine. I started out meeting my mentee on a bi-weekly basis for an hour, but after a while they started forgetting which week was the right week. So, we decided to meet weekly instead, and we both found ourselves way more invested. Finding the right cadence is definitely important, but follow-through matters most.
- Ask questions at the end of each conversation to formulate next steps. You and your mentee may end up talking about a lot of different topics, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every topic will relate to their interests or goals. The way to figure that out—and add even greater value to your next conversation—is to ask them. I ask my mentee questions like, “Do you want to continue discussing this?” and “Is there anything we haven't talked about that you want to explore?” Once I get a sense of what they want to discuss with me, I pursue those topics in preparing for our following meetings. It helps gather relevant information I want to share, and it helps my mentee learn more about something that matters to them.
Tips for future mentees
- When looking for a mentor, seek out someone you feel you have an affinity with. You’d be surprised by how many people are out there who share similar backgrounds and experiences to you. Take time to think about what commonalities matter to you—whether they have a similar personality or upbringing as you; they are the same race, ethnicity, or gender; or they are on a professional path that aligns with your interests.
- Consider how much structure or programming you think you need. Some mentorship opportunities happen organically through work or activities, while others have a more structured, programmatic element. Think about what kind of relationship will help you grow more meaningfully, because you know how you operate best. If you’re unsure, I’d recommend seeking advice from people in more structured mentorship spaces first, like the NY LGBT Center or other affinity groups.
- Don’t shy away from asking your mentor questions about things that pique your interest and curiosity. If your mentor has created a space where you feel comfortable opening up, then go right ahead and ask as many types of questions as you want. In my experience at the Center, mentors never shut down questions from their mentees. If I don’t have an immediate or satisfying answer to my mentee’s question, I will guide them to resources that can help. Most, if not all, mentors will do the same.
Mentorship has really added valuable insight to my everyday life, including my current role in recruiting. For example, being a mentor at the Center has really helped me understand the importance of identity, and I’m applying that understanding much more mindfully to the search process. Many of the Center’s mentees are working with us to figure out their pronouns, how to express themselves, and other essential parts of their identities. Through those conversations, I’ve learned to stop assuming candidates’ identities and use gender-neutral pronouns like “they/them” more frequently. I also include my own pronouns in my email signature so candidates feel more comfortable sharing theirs. I’m shifting my thinking for the better, and I credit a lot of that to being a mentor.