Mentors (and More): Personal Connections Spur Professional Growth

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When Patricia Bello started graduate school at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, she had plans to pursue a career with the federal government. But soon after starting a graduate assistantship (GA) in the Slutzker Center for International Services, Bello realized that she enjoyed working with international students and scholars. 

Her experience as a GA, and particularly guidance from then-director of the Slutzker Center Patricia “Pat” Burak, sparked Bello’s passion for the field of international education.

“My graduate assistantship was profoundly life-changing, primarily due to the unwavering dedication and support of my mentor (then and now), Dr. Patricia Burak,” says Bello, now the assistant provost for international education and global affairs and director of international student and scholar services at Binghamton University, State University of New York (SUNY). 

“She was a leader and a teacher,” Bello says of Burak. “Her love of the field and all it stood for was contagious, and she was tireless in her efforts to advocate for and encourage everyone with whom she worked. She patiently taught me the foundational knowledge I gained in the field and inspired me to continue to grow and learn.”

Networking, mentoring, and learning from peers are all hallmarks of the field of international education, each element playing an important role in professional and career development. In a season of decreased international student enrollments, paused study abroad programs, layoffs, furloughs, and other financial strains, few international offices can afford conferences, courses, or other training expenses. 

While NAFSA provides many opportunities to develop hard skills, one of its main functions is to connect international educators throughout their career journeys. From Network.NAFSA and knowledge communities to Trainer Corps and the region-run mentoring programs, one of NAFSA’s strengths is creating connections between newcomers to the field and seasoned professionals. 

As Bello discovered, these personal relationships can inspire direction and fuel professional growth.

“Never underestimate the power of mentorship,” says Bello, who has served in NAFSA’s Trainer Corps and the Trainer Corps Prep Team. “My career path—and personal and professional life—was transformed by the generosity of wisdom and spirit of so many.”

Mentoring Grows the Field of International Education

Mentorships may start through structured initiatives, such as NAFSA’s regional mentor programs, or grow organically through interactions in the workplace or professional development settings. Either way, these relationships offer benefits for both mentor and mentee, as well as the organizations they serve. 

study published in 2018 by the Association for Talent Development found that organizations with formal mentoring programs achieved benefits such as higher employee engagement and retention, enhanced professional growth for employees with high potential, and stronger relationships and collaboration among employees. Mentees were more likely to achieve the organizations’ learning goals and were more effective at reaching business goals. Mentors developed stronger leadership skills and new perspectives.

While an important function of mentorships is to pass along knowledge about the field and encourage development of professional skills, Eric Kroetsch, MA, adds that the greater value of these relationships is the “social and cultural capital” shared with inexperienced colleagues.

“By social capital, I mean the relationships that the mentor has and can leverage [to help a mentee build their network],” says Kroetsch, a counselor in international student and scholar services at the University of Minnesota. “The cultural capital refers to the way things are done—the unwritten rules. A mentor can help a mentee understand the nuances they can’t read in a textbook or learn in a lecture.”

During a career that spanned three decades at Trinity University, Nancy Ericksen advised countless students who studied abroad and went on to incorporate their international experiences into their careers, including several in the field of international education.  

“Sometimes you don’t know when you are [mentoring someone else],” says Ericksen, a NAFSA Life Member and a Region III Lifetime Achievement Award winner. “Almost everyone I know who has been in education abroad is a mentor. Mentoring just seems to be a part of who they are, and maybe a part of what draws them to the field.”

Mentees Become Mentors

It is not uncommon for those considered mentors by others to have been guided early in their careers by a seasoned professional as well.

Long before Pat Burak mentored Bello and a long line of interns, GAs, and green staffers who worked in her division over the years, she was guided in her career development by the late Virginia Torelli, a founding member and former president of NAFSA and the first director of Syracuse University’s international office. 

Pat Burak and Trisha Bello [square]
Pat Burak and Trisha Bello

Burak admired her former boss’s efforts to create a welcoming atmosphere on campus at a time when distrust of international students was widespread. She remembers Torelli’s Wednesday lunches for the campus community, during which Torelli and a group of students from a particular country would prepare and serve a dish popular in their culture.

“Virginia was a very honest person, straight shooting, but she was a caring, supportive director of our office,” says Burak, who is now retired and received the 2020 NAFSA Life Membership Award. “She fought battles. There was a significant amount of wariness of ‘the other’ [at that time], and she engaged in many social building programs. She reached out to others and created community.”

As Burak moved through the ranks of international services at Syracuse, she says, “I started to mentor almost anyone who was interested in the field of international education. Mentoring ran in my blood.”

Burak also formed a professional support group with a few colleagues from NAFSA’s Region X, which they called Desperate Foreign Student Advisors—a play on the popular TV show Desperate Housewives. The group chatted via email and phone at least once a week, venting about frustrations, sharing challenges and small victories, and offering advice to one another. 

“That wasn’t exactly a source of mentoring, but it was a source of self-support and professional growth,” Burak says. “For the most part within international education, we’re not a group of terribly competitive people. We’re all mutually supportive, and we’re always trying to get other people into the field and gain awareness and support for international educational exchange at every level.”

Finding Support Through Volunteer Experiences

More than 400 international education professionals participate in NAFSA’s Trainer Corps, ready to share their experiences and expertise within their regions and knowledge communities. These leaders are ambassadors for the NAFSA Core Education Program Workshops and e-Learning courses, which strengthen the fundamental professional competencies in international education. 

For Emma Swift, EdM, associate director of the Office of International Education at the University of Vermont, membership in NAFSA’s Trainer Corps helped her make connections across a wide geographic range and a diverse set of institutions. While some of the relationships have been brief encounters, others have been lasting, expanding her network of peers to call on when she needs advice or support through challenging circumstances at work.

“In every Trainer Corps encounter, I have learned something or gained a new perspective,” Swift says. “Each training has widened my net so that when I need support to work through an issue or want to find a better way of doing something, I have additional people to lean on and work together with. International education at its best is a great connector, and Trainer Corps helps do that as a microcosm of the field.”

Serving in volunteer posts for NAFSA—including as network coordinator for the Education Abroad Knowledge Community—Mandy Reinig, MA, connected with colleagues who became her sounding boards for difficulties on the job and professional concerns.

“These [colleagues] have been sympathetic ears as well as people I could go to for advice as to what my possible options might be [for difficult situations],” says Reinig, director of study away at Virginia Wesleyan University. “What I also find amazing is that we won’t talk for months due to the nature of our jobs and schedules, but when we do finally get a chance to connect—over the phone or in person—it is like we spoke just yesterday. I consider them colleagues as well as friends.”

What Makes a Good Mentor?

Building professional connections is an ideal way to boost career knowledge and hone the soft skills that are so vital in international education—from interpersonal communication and empathy to flexibility, problem solving, and creative thinking. Whether these relationships take the form of mentor-mentee or peer-to-peer associations, certain qualities are key ingredients to make them effective. Here are a few of those qualities:

  • Empathy: Demonstrate an understanding of the struggles, as well as the joys, that colleagues and students face in their work or academic pursuits. Bello admired how Burak deftly “interwove empathy and expertise, both as a leader of her professional colleagues and for the students and scholars that she served,” she says. “At the end of the day, she truly was a servant leader.”
  • Attentiveness: Listen to others’ concerns and struggles and respond in a nonjudgmental way. “I never set out to say, ‘I’m going to mentor these people,’” says Kay Thomas, who retired as director of the University of Minnesota’s international student and scholar services and currently leads NAFSA’s Phase II MIG (Member Interest Group). “I was always just listening to them, encouraging them, and providing opportunities.”
  • Honesty: Be candid about the ups and downs in the field of international education. “It’s important to be able to give it to them straight and to say, ‘This is the good, the bad, and the ugly of what we do,’” says Steve Seaworth, MA, executive director of INSTEP at Wake Forest University. “[To tell them], ‘Here are some trapdoors you need to be aware of.’ A good mentor is honest about what this field is really like and what to expect, as well as what to do to climb the ladder.”
  • Encouragement: Celebrating each other’s achievements, small or large, helps people move forward with confidence. Bello says, “None of us could have gotten to where we are without our mentors in the field. Pat [Burak] always told me, ‘It’s good to have roots and wings.’ It's amazing to know that someone is cheering for you from afar and wants you to do well.”

Investing Time in Personal Connections

Professional development does not have to stretch the budget, and it is important to look beyond traditional training opportunities. When international education professionals—whether newcomers to the field or veterans with years of experience—invest time in establishing personal connections with others who share a passion for this work, significant growth can come from stepping out of your comfort zone.

“Learning from someone who’s already walked the walk is one of the best ways to learn anything,” Burak says. “And that’s especially true when you have a good relationship with the person whose shoes you’re trying to step into.”

Two Stories of Personal Connections in Action

Emily Ostenson, MA, and Roopa Rawjee, EdD
Emily Ostenson, MA, and Roopa Rawjee, EdD

Emily and Roopa: Academy Coaching Sparks Friendship

Just 4 years ago, Roopa Rawjee, EdD, and Emily Ostenson, MA, were strangers sharing a passion for international education. But they were paired together as mentor and mentee in 2017 when Ostenson—a newcomer to international education—enrolled in NAFSA’s Academy for International Education. Out of this connection, a friendship blossomed that remains a source of support and encouragement for both women.

“The Academy leads to these lasting friendships as you transition from the coach-trainee relationship to colleagues,” says Ostenson, an adviser in education abroad at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “Roopa is just this integral person of supporting you, supporting your goals, taking you through a learning plan, and creating that community of nurturing and support and advocacy. [She really pushes you] to stand up for who you are, take advantage of learning opportunities, and really think forward.”

The yearlong Academy offers participants the opportunity to receive coaching from a seasoned international education professional as they learn alongside a small cohort and develop personal learning goals. Throughout the program, participants build a network of international education colleagues within their regions and beyond to support career development. Because the mentors and mentees do not work in the same workplace, Rawjee describes the Academy as a “safe” space where participants can speak freely about the challenges they face on the job.

For Rawjee, who has become friends with several of her trainees over the years, the coaching experience is rewarding. She enjoys watching as new professionals “blossom” as they strengthen their skills and develop confidence. Many of her former mentees, in turn, have offered her encouragement through recent career transitions.

“Just cheering each other on through these different facets of our lives has been really a love and a joy,” says Rawjee, assistant vice president in the Office of Global Services at Northeastern University. “Having had that foundation of a trusting, loving relationship [that begins in the Academy], knowing that there is no ego here and no expectation—it’s all love and thoughtful and intended to be good and supportive. It’s a very different relationship that fulfills me incredibly.”

Regina George and Lauren Jacobson-Bridges, MA
Regina George and Lauren Jacobson-Bridges, MA, at a NAFSA conference in 2016.

Lauren and Regina: Peer-to-Peer Connections Support Growth

Lauren Jacobsen-Bridges, MA, and Regina George hit it off after meeting several years ago through their NAFSA volunteer roles and in Trainer Corps. The two became fast friends and keep in touch, supporting each other’s career growth and comparing notes about their jobs. 

But Jacobsen-Bridges and George don’t just talk shop. Like any pair of good friends, they share updates on their personal lives.

“We don’t just talk about what’s going on in our offices—we also talk about our partners and friendships, and even our pets,” says George, director of the Office of Immigration at the University of South Alabama. “As much as we mentor each other in our professional lives, we also care about each other as people. … We have a mutual trust and admiration for each other based on growing up together in the field.”

For Jacobsen-Bridges, director of international student and scholar services at the University of North Texas, the additional challenges brought on by the pandemic over the past year have prompted frequent conversations with George about how to handle unprecedented circumstances. They enjoy brainstorming ideas together, comparing results of programs and activities their institutions offer, and discussing how different schools interpret regulations.

“[These talks] help me to consider different ideas and perspectives, which in turn makes me a better international educator,” says Jacobsen-Bridges. “I have not only a professional person that I can talk about ideas with but also the emotional support that having a mentor or a peer in your field provides, especially at difficult times. That relationship has provided me with emotional support and stability to know I’m not going through these questions or these difficulties alone. [Knowing] I have mentors and peers in the field who are struggling with the same questions has been a huge value to me.”

This article first appeared on International Educator.