January is National Mentoring Month. As noted in the Presidential Proclamation, this month is a time to “reflect on the transformative role mentorship can play and acknowledge the many ways that mentors have helped our next generation of leaders and innovators grow.” As we kick off a new year, it is fitting that we think about our hopes and goals and how our mentors have helped us along the way. It is also a time to consider how we might be mentors to others.
As part of the celebration of mentoring this month, January 19th has been designated National #ThankYourMentor Day. I encourage each of you to reach out to your mentors and tell them what they have meant to you.
This year, #ThankYourMentor Day is bittersweet for me. Just this past weekend, one of my cherished mentors, Dr. Susan Karcher, passed away after a battle with cancer. I’d like to share with you why I feel compelled to thank Dr. Karcher.
As a graduate student at Purdue University, I taught several semesters for Dr. Karcher’s Genetics Laboratory. She had a gentle demeanor with an infectious smile and giggle. It was apparent that she cared for her students and wanted them to have a valuable learning experience. Graduate students in the sciences do not always get the chance to see a passion for teaching demonstrated on a large scale. Sometimes, the only interactions with faculty are with your graduate advisor and thesis committee, where the focus is on research. As someone who has always had a desire to teach, it was refreshing to have someone like Dr. Karcher to learn from and talk to about teaching.
Oftentimes, I would stop by her office to chat. Sometimes we’d talk about the upcoming lessons or she’d give me advice on how to break through to students. In time, she got to know about my research, career goals and my worries and fears. Like most graduate students, there was a time when I wanted to quit. I felt that people would wake up and realize they had made a mistake in letting me into a doctoral program. Dr. Karcher seemed to know what questions to ask to get me thinking more deeply about these beliefs. Through our conversations, I came to my own realization that I wasn’t an imposter, I did belong there and I would finish what I had started.
I am glad I did.
Dr. Karcher opened up opportunities for me to mentor incoming graduate teaching assistants. She introduced me to the Biology education community and gave me the chance to lead workshops with the Association for Biology Laboratory Education. This rounded out my experience as a graduate student and helped me feel whole.
There is a wealth of opinions on what it means to be a good mentor. Some recurring themes are that a good mentor is someone who is supportive, trustworthy, a good listener, experienced, open, willing to challenge assumptions and leads by example. Dr. Karcher embodied all of those and more. So on this #ThankYourMentor Day, I’d like to thank Dr. Karcher and hope that she is resting peacefully knowing that her life’s work has enriched so many others.
For more on National Mentor Month, visit the campaign materials at www.mentoring.org.