One of the sessions I missed at HighEdWeb (a totally awesome higher ed web professionals conference I attended for the first time in October 2012 and now again, in October 2013) last week was an all-woman panel talking about paving their way in higher ed web communities. It was a storytelling opportunity, not a complaining sesh or as a retaliation toward the conference's gender balance — actually, the impetus of the panel was more that higher ed + web + women is actually a pretty legit thing, especially at HighEdWeb... just that it isn't everywhere. And we need to hear what the world is like for these ladies right now in a space that's working pretty well — but we can always do better. (Can you tell that I really really wished I'd been there? The only reason I missed this panel, plus another kick-ass lady talking about the work she does in higher ed, was that I was presenting on my own passion: student content creators. Like these blogs. YES. THESE BLOGS <3)
ANYWAYS. The whole reason I gushed my regrets about not being able to attend this panel is one of the lasting thoughts from the panelists in response to the final question presented by the moderator: "What's one or two sentences of advice you would share to women to advance your career?" which was echoed by most of the lovely ladies of higher ed on the panel.
Be an advocate for yourself and find a mentor.
Okay. These two things are connected, I promise. I'm trying really really hard to become a better advocate for myself. It's hard to talk about yourself. (I blog. I'm good at telling stories with a personal spin, but I am wretched at saying that I'm good at something and that people should know that.) The only way I've become better at this is by having people tell me over and over that I'm good at what I do. Validation, I suppose, but not just. When you're so close to what you do, it's hard to step away and see how you're doing. I'm trying. Hard(er). So this is where other people come into the picture. My mentors are my advocates AND they help make me a better advocate for myself.
One of the things we talk about at Oberlin is a close and lasting relationship with our professors. But I feel like I failed at that somewhat. I don't know what happened. I got along with my professors, but they're not the first people turn to when I feel lost or need some conversation or need an advocate. I find mentors in lots of places; I always have and always will (my dad echoed this thought this weekend when he and my mom were visiting. I gravitate toward humans I want to be like. Follow the awesome, that's my motto). It's just that most of my mentors come from my classroom of the world, the learning space of life. The professors I have a mentoring relationship type thing with have more to do with working closely with them in a less traditional academic setting: the professors I helped create a media literacy program with, the professor I TA-ed for, the professor I never had in class but trained me as a part of the academic ambassadors program, the professors I've met and collaborated with since graduating.
Don't get me wrong, Oberlin profs are AMAZING, but they're people too. I think I inevitably became overwhelmed with their awesomeness as my teachers, and not as the people I wanted to connect with and befriend. They all seemed too cool for the likes of me when they were standing at the front of the classroom, but when we got to work together, it was about the exchange of our awesomeness. I had something to offer and so did they. I like that kind of partnership. That's why when I think of what made my Oberlin experience rock, it was the people I got to work with (not just professors!), that were equally, if not MORE, passionate about the things I was passionate about.
My mid-semester advice to all of you: don't limit your learning to your professors. (And don't be scared of them. They're just people. Really really cool people.) Also: find someone, anyone to serve as a mentor. Not someone you just wanna absorb all the cool from, but also work with so that your relationship develops as you do. Professors are a natural starting point, but there are so many things to learn from everyone here. I've got my mentor friends around me, within arm's or email's or phone call's reach. I want you all to have them, too. (They make my life great. I want your life to be great too.)
As someone in the in-between mentor/mentee thing, I get conflicting thoughts from those around me about the point in your life at which you can become a mentor. I didn't think I was capable of it until I hit some magical age or illustrious position in life, but it turns out I've been doing this for a while without even knowing it. I'm advocating for our student bloggers all the time, and I'm working with them constantly to make wonderful things. I like to think that I'm a food mentor, a writing mentor, a photo mentor. (Look, dad! I'm advocating for myself!!) But is the role of mentor bestowed, much like being an ally or an "thought leader," or one that you make yourself available to being a part of for others? I'm not sure. I *think* I'm at a point that I'm trying both on for size: making sure that those around me know I'm cool with helping out, partnering, making both of us better, but also offering up things that make me think I could be a mentor to others. (Wait. Maybe both these things are the same thing?)
You know what I love about all of this? The cycle, the circle. I have mentors, my mentors have mentors, and I'm gonna be (I am?) one, too. We're here to help each other, whether it be someone to talk to or talk up. Learning from each other. It doesn't really stop when you say stop. In all these situations, it's about being open to the possibilities. I wish I could say that's what college is all about, but really, it's what life is all about.