How I Landed A Mentor in Virtually Every Department
Everything is easier when you have people rooting for you. It means more work, of course. I spent more time at school and asked questions in class and went to office hours and smiled. I was open about my opinions, but educated in making them. I was vulnerable at the right times; the only way a relationship can get deeper is through vulnerability. It meant admitting that I was lost, or wrong, or confused, or afraid. I'd left my family in another state, so to have these adults with my best interests at heart made me feel supported and safe.
Early in my academic career I'd asked one of the students if she was close with her professors. "I think so," she'd said. "I mean, I'm not like, 'get coffee with them' close." A feeling of "I can't relate" slid through my body. I felt close enough with those professors that I could talk with them about anything, to the point where some of them hired me out for separate projects and letters of recommendation were easily obtained. That meant getting to know professors right away. Sometimes that meant emailing them before the start of class, and frequenting office hours early and often. Sometimes it meant picking the right people - the ones who were willing to work with students. My first job came from following a professor around for a little while. "I'm starting a new group," he'd announced, "and if you're interested at all you should come with me." Public health and policy were widely unexplored topics for me - I was just seventeen - but I wanted to get close with that professor, so I went. I kept going to the meetings and met the boss. He took me under his wing and I've been working with him since.
I didn't make the Honors Program my first year at John Jay but I didn't let that deter me. I scheduled meetings with the Program Advisor around twice a semester. "I met you at Accepted Students Day," I'd emailed her. "Do you think we could set up a time to talk?" She wanted to see devoted students. Because I was so consistent with letting her know how I'd been doing, I was at the top of the list when recruitment came around for the next year. I continued to visit with the advisors in the program throughout my time at school, which is how I got recommended to other projects along the way. My advisors knew what was important to me, because I was open and honest with them.
Taking a job on campus gave me the freedom to interact with other departments and the access to people who could help me plan out my future. If I didn't know someone around campus, there was an Academic Advisor who did. I was paired up with a student and a mentor who looked out for me my first year of working with Advisement. I still remember sitting down with my mentor and carefully exploring my graduation options. Would I do a minor or end up in a Fellowship? How many more ISP classes could I take? I stuck around in Advisement and my projects got to be more interesting.
When I had my interview for the Fellowship I eventually ended up taking the directors asked me how I'd heard about the program. I told them, "I've been coming to your information sessions since I was a freshman." I'd emailed the program coordinator separately and asked even though I can't apply yet, can I still sit in on the information session? They remembered that. My interest to them was clear and they appreciated the initiative I took. All it took was one email and a handful of visits for them to learn my name. It is doable.
I took two classes with the White Whale (as I affectionately call him, because he's so hard to pin down); both psychology and the law classes that I excelled in. He didn't explicitly share his enthusiasm to work with students and made that abundantly clear. But I'd gotten people from the BA/MA program to root for me and I'd already managed to pin down another advisor who wasn't necessarily working with psychology students, so I was pretty determined. Finally, I'd approached him with my graduate thesis paperwork.
ME: I know you have one foot in retirement and you don't really work with students.
ME: But you have to work with me.
ME: I'm special, and you're going to like me.
HIM: *laughs* Okay.
I'd had the same conversation with him a year earlier and it looked more like this.
ME: I'd really like to work with you.
Sometimes a "no" just means a "not yet." I've gotten plenty of "not yet's" from John Jay, and other groups around New York. Be persistent. Don't be obnoxious. But sometimes you have to email someone twice, or reapply, or even follow a professor into an elevator before he takes you seriously. But he will. (And he should. Especially if you hustled catch that elevator, like I did.)