When I was a little boy, I sat in church with my mom, singing every hymn at the top of my boy-soprano lungs. I’ll admit that I was much more interested in the organ prelude and choir anthems than the sermon. Around the time I was in fourth grade, Jean Cummings, the music director, sought out the boy singing at the top of his lungs, took me under her wing, and thus began a church singing career that lasted for 25 years. In fact, singing in the church was my first and most sustained volunteer experience. One of the first solos she taught me included lyrics: "I am a promise; I am a possibility. I am a promise with a capital P. I am a great big bundle of potentiality." She was a teacher, an aunt, friend, compatriot, and my first real mentor.
While life eventually took us in different directions, I sought her out about five years ago, and we reconnected by way of cards and letters. I wanted her to know of her importance in and influence on my life. I told Jean that she was my earliest mentor and about how much I treasured our relationship. We saw one another for the first time in 15 years last November, and we melted into the comfort of our initial relationship. As we visited, she mentioned how uncomfortable she was with my reference to her as one of my mentors. She expressed uncertainty in her abilities to help someone beyond her family through the chutes and ladders of his life. She felt she wasn’t qualified. But that is why she was so effective. She simply gave of herself to this insecure boy, and continued giving of herself through my college years and beyond. She unconsciously helped guide my life, held my hand when I didn’t feel I could talk to anyone else, challenged me, and served as a constant source of inspiration. She helped me discover the possibilities.
Throughout my 15 years of involvement with ACUI, I have tried to emulate Jean’s example and the acts of friendship, colleagueship, and mentorship that I’ve been fortunate to receive from ACUI members. I still vividly recall my first annual conference where three colleagues from Region 6 befriended me. Those colleagues started me on the path of discovering and exploring ACUI’s diversity and texture, and its celebrations, networks, services, and opportunities. Their overtures forged relationships, gave me the courage to get involved, and helped me become more resourceful and better equipped to adapt to personal and professional challenges. Their stories have most certainly helped shape my personal and professional life and, in my opinion, are key to keeping the Association vibrant and welcoming. The development and mentoring of future Association leaders should become a priority for us all—our profession and Association depend on it.
Surveys over the past 30 years have shown that personal interaction and encouragement from faculty and staff have been important factors in determining the career path of students. Fostering professional relationships with students and others can only benefit this worthy profession of ours and help establish aspirations, values, and future career paths. It’s an educator’s responsibility to "select those things within the range of existing experience that have the promise and potentiality of presenting new problems, which, by stimulating new ways of observation and judgment, will expand the area of further experience" (Dewey, 1938, p. 75).
The act of mentoring is a reciprocal process in which all individuals are constantly being molded and shaped by their respective experiences and interactions. The act of mentoring allows us to learn from each other’s curiosity, challenges, enthusiasm, uncertainty, and eagerness. Like Jean, all it takes is a willingness to reach out and say: "How can I help?" According to L.A. Daloz (1986), we trust mentors:
… because they have been there before. They embody our hopes, cast light on the way ahead, interpret arcane signs, warn us of lurking dangers, and point out unexpected delights along the way. There is a certain luminosity about them, and they often pose as magicians in tales of transformation. (p. 17)
As Patricia Cross notes in the foreword to Daloz’s (1986) Effective Teaching and Mentoring, mentoring is a journey where:
… mentor clears the way, gives some travel tips, and smoothes the bumps. Occasionally the mentor helps the protégé develop the necessary stills to navigate an especially difficult turn in the road, but by and large, the mentor concentrates on providing a map and fixing the road rather than on developing the traveler. …
In exploring previously unknown byways that are revealed to them as they travel, they discover goals never before considered and satisfactions not previously experienced. The mentor … is not so much interested in fixing the road as in helping the protégé become a competent traveler. (p. ix)
Fostering and strengthening relationships among ACUI members compels us to learn from one another and has the potential to increase the diversity of our profession, enhance retention, create a more welcoming environment for all of our members, strengthen our sense of community, and build a stronger base of regional and international volunteer support. Our professional and associational relationships reflect Dewey’s (1938) idea of "social enterprise," where all "individuals have an opportunity to contribute something, and in which the activities in which all participate are the chief carrier of control" (p. 56).
Throughout ACUI history, leaders have heard about how hard it is for volunteers to commit their time and energy, whether it is through community or professional interactions. Volunteers voice a variety of reasons for not volunteering: doing more on our campuses, family responsibilities, lack of institutional support, time commitment, the idea that you’re not qualified. Other social, professional, and civic organizations acknowledge that it is not easy to recruit the brightest and best to serve in leadership positions; however, mentoring others and encouraging our members to witness the benefits that come from being involved are wonderful motivators. Those in leadership positions have a responsibility to serve as positive role models for those who might volunteer within ACUI, yet more importantly, to undergraduate and graduate students who might be interested in our profession.
Beyond the ACUI leadership, we all must keep our eyes and ears open for those undergraduates, graduate students, newcomers, and veterans who can bring greater value to the Association. It is our collective responsibility to bring out the best in all individuals and match them to the work of the Association. Therefore, constant diligence is essential to find more targeted, meaningful ways to connect with our members. Volunteers need to be paired with opportunities that honor their talents and gifts, but also with opportunities that expand their skills and perspectives. Volunteers need to be appreciated and utilized effectively.
Our association must work toward providing true opportunities for engagement if we want to grow, thrive, and retain members. If ACUI membership is not looking toward future generations and increasing the value of volunteer experiences, then our association risks becoming obsolete, the regrettable eventuality of many organizations. Volunteers need to feel a sense of ownership, knowing that their input is valued and important to the overall progress of the Association. As we know from some positive and not-so-positive examples on our campuses, one-dimensional models of leadership and involvement do not always work; indeed they can prove stagnant. While ACUI is incredibly fortunate to have volunteers willing to give significant time to the work of the Association, we recognize that some members are unable to commit to volunteer opportunities that last for two or three years. That’s why ACUI offers focused, targeted opportunities—such as task forces and think tanks—that provide a shorter, more manageable time commitments for volunteers.
Talented people will continue to lead ACUI and our community to its destiny. However, we must work much harder and more effectively to identify and develop talent throughout the Association if we want to provide positive examples for those looking for avenues into the Association and those seeking to connect more directly with ACUI. Having a shared organizational context can be a powerful thing; it can forge friendships and be transformative.
Smart associations can improve members’ experiences by bringing people together in mutually beneficial ways. As Arthur Brooks, professor at Syracuse University, suggested recently, associations must find ways to bridge and capitalize on the talents and skills of members who are "keen on building capital in their careers, building expertise, building successful careers," while also utilizing the experience and wisdom of members looking to "pass on the knowledge they’ve gained" (in Junker, 2007, p. 53).
Several years ago, a dear friend of mine related a story about her then-5-year-old son. He was just entering the hallowed halls of kindergarten, about to commence a wondrous journey. The son had to take a yellow school bus to get to his kindergarten class. As you might imagine, his parents were rather nervous about how he would handle the bus routine. On the first day of school, the father waited with his son at the bus stop, contemplating the boy’s first solo bus ride, when a strange and lovely thing happened. A second-grader noticed the 5-year-old and introduced himself. Sensing the apprehension of the father more than the son, the second-grader very nonchalantly said to the father, "I remember what it was like when I was his age; I’ll show him what to do." The bus arrived and the two boys climbed aboard as the father waved goodbye. The utter bliss and simplicity of youth. That simple overture provided a map for the kindergartner’s exciting journey.
This story offers a useful and powerful lens through which to teach us about the impact of mentoring relationships. Building a culture of mentorship and camaraderie does not happen overnight, so consider this narrative as a gentle kick in the pants. Embrace the possibility of our association by first inspiring ourselves and, in the process, inspiring others. We are capable, bright, devoted, caring, and indispensable people committed to education and the development of students. Let us commit our constructive energy to recognize and capitalize on the "potentiality" that exists within our association.