At NetVUE’s Faculty Development Workshop on Teaching Vocational Exploration in June, Paul Wadell presented a paper entitled “Mentoring for Vocation – Befriending Those Entrusted to Us.” The paper was well-received because it spoke to mentorship as an essential part of vocation. The article is published in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education, yet is relevant to those who may not be Catholic. As Wadell explains, the language of “friendship” may be more “inviting, understandable, and relatable” to those who may not have explicit religious commitments and are increasingly part of a diverse academy. “Friendship” can help us better understand “mentorship” even though the concepts are distinct and have unique traits. Wadell then proceeds to list three specific ways in which the metaphor of “friendship” can give us insights into who a mentor can potentially be.
First, “a friend is someone who seeks another’s good and finds joy in doing so.” A friend is someone who genuinely cares about their friend and “sets aside [their] own concerns and preoccupations in order to attend to them and help them come to a clearer understanding of what is truly good for them.” College students pursue friendships, especially those of their peers and fellow students from whom they seek approval and counsel. However, many students are specifically looking for an adult who genuinely cares for them and is interested in them flourishing in the world. These adults play an essential role in helping students find their “home” or their place in contributing to the global common good.
Second, true friendship demands that one “make space” for their friend within one’s life. This “space” develops out of making the friend a priority such as finding time within one’s schedule. Friendship is thus an “eloquent act of hospitality” where one brings a “stranger” into one’s life because they ultimately see something good in them and worth engaging. This good is something that the student may not have necessarily seen within themselves but is recognized and brought out by the mentor.
Third, friends work to get to know one another and understand their specific stories. Friendship is a “form of love” and requires a recognition of who the other person is and “what it would mean for them to thrive and flourish.” Giving time to students implies that there is a genuine “respect for the students who come to us.” Respecting students necessitates listening to their stories and learning about the pivotal moments of their upbringing and formative memories. To be invited into a student’s story is “a sacred trust” because “their story is their truth and they need to speak it.”
However, a true mentor does not simply listen to their student’s stories but responds to them and potentially directs them to better ones. Nonetheless, the best way for a mentor to help develop their student’s stories is to “embody in their own lives the virtues, dispositions, and practices they are encouraging students to adopt.” As Wadell poetically states, “Nothing convinces students more than authenticity. And perhaps nothing disillusions them more than hypocrisy.”
Waddell acknowledges that while the metaphor of friendship may be helpful, there are some key differences between it and that of mentorship. For instance, friendship is defined by “mutuality” while a mentorship relationship is focused primarily on the mentee. The mentor is focused on the student’s success and is not requiring the same in return. Moreover, the mentorship relationship usually has an imbalance of power and authority. Mentors can use their power to help students succeed but they could also use it to abuse, an important reminder in our cultural moment and in the backdrops of the #Metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements. It is therefore essential to define boundaries within a mentorship relationship and to point students to other experts when necessary. If a student is wrestling with depression or anxiety, for instance, then they should be directed to a counselor or mental health professional.
The metaphor of friendship allows readers to better understand the profound role that a mentor can play within their student’s life. Wadell’s various writings emphasize hope, empathy and mentors “embodying what they call their students to be.” I highly recommend his work for courses, faculty development programs and reading groups on vocation and mentorship.
Paul Wadell, “Mentoring for Vocation: Befriending Those Entrusted to Us,” Journal of Catholic Higher Education 36, no. 2 (2007):103-120.
Paul Wadell, “An Itinerary of Hope: Called to Magnanimous Way,” in At this Time and in This Place: Vocation in Higher Education, edited by David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2015).
Younus Mirza is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Allegheny College. He is the author of “Doubt as an Integral Part of Calling: The Qur’anic Story of Joseph” which will appear in the volume Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, edited by David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2019). To learn more about his scholarship and teaching, please check out his website at http://dryounusmirza.com