When I speak to younger students, I emphasize how important it was for me to have mentors. In their eyes, I was someone who was successful and “made it” on my own. But I clarified that although I did “make it” in terms of enduring societal pressures and successfully navigating systems that weren’t designed for first-generation low-income students like me, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to make it this far without the various mentor figures that supported me along the way. A lot of these mentor figures may not even realize what impact they’ve had on me.
1. A Child of Chinese-Vietnamese Immigrants
In high school, I had someone who I admired — at first from afar and later close up. I was attracted to him because of our similar backgrounds; He was also a child of immigrant parents and also Chinese-Vietnamese. I did not have many ambitions and the factor guiding my college search was if it was close to my parents’ home. I would need to help with translating and taking care of them throughout college and it was the deciding factor for me. I knew that this mentor figure shared a lot of the same experiences and I assumed he would have the same goals. When I heard about his college acceptance and success in college, I realized that I had the power to do the same as well. This mentor helped me realize that my identities as a first-generation low-income (FGLI) student and a child of immigrant parents who didn’t speak English were not something that held me back, but rather something that allowed me to become more resilient. He was a role model and mentor that led by example and I followed in his footsteps while I figured out my own goals.
2. A lab and PI that treated me as equals
When I started working in my first lab, I was ambitious and excited but also felt like I didn’t belong. I worked directly with a graduate student who taught and mentored me but I felt extremely bad every time I would go to her to ask a question or to tell her I didn’t understand what she just explained. She reassured me that everyone has to start from somewhere and she was glad I’m learning with her. Mistakes are welcome but in lab settings they could be costly (e.g. ruining two months work of experiments with one mistake) and she emphasized that I could and should ask any and all questions. My PI was also very helpful as he checked in with me weekly and made sure I felt welcome and safe in the environment. I was scared and afraid of making mistakes because of how my mistakes were treated growing up. Working in this lab reassured me that in that space, no one will yell at me for mistakes I make, and that they will instead work together with me to figure out how to troubleshoot the issue and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
3. A long distance mentorship
During my junior year, I was matched with a mentor through my scholarship program and we mainly communicated over email and the phone due to being located on opposite coasts. My first call with this mentor was when she asked me what my goals were. This surprised me as it felt more like an interview question and it immediately aroused anxiety from within me. I did not have an answer prepared and I nervously rambled instead.
I told her about my goals of wanting to serve the Asian community, helping people who cannot afford care and cannot access language services for the care they need. I talked about the lack of awareness of mental health issues in the Asian community and how I often saw this during my community work. I talked about my experiences working with students and how I saw the themes of acculturation issues and intergenerational conflict come through what they shared with me. I then shared that although I have these goals and interests, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make the impact I want to make because I don’t have the best GPA or GRE scores.
What she shared with me after changed me completely. She told me that she heard a lot of passion, care, and compassion in what I shared, but beneath all of that was self-doubt and a lack of self confidence. She said she didn’t know me well yet but she believed in me and that I would be able to contribute to change in our communities. She felt pain and hurt when she heard me beating my own accomplishments down and she wanted me to be more confident in myself. Although it’s easier said than done, she felt that I shouldn’t lack confidence in my abilities because I am a powerful and resilient individual and I should be proud of it. Though she was a stranger at that point, her belief in me was the jumpstart I needed to get to where I wanted to be.
I share these stories and my experiences not only as a means of reflecting on the role that mentorship has played in my life so far, but also to encourage others to be mentors as well. Most of us may be mentors to multiple individuals already and whether we know it or not, we may have left large impacts on our mentees. Mentorship can come in many shapes and as you can see, the various mentors in my life have taught me different things that ultimately helped shape my own life and goals. These mentors that I highlighted are by no means the only mentors I’ve had, and I will continue to explore different mentors in future posts.
How has mentorship shaped you?