The power of a mentor

“What do you want to get out of our time?”

by Brad Jenkins (’99)

Stephen and I had been meeting for a couple weeks, and it looked like we were settling into a familiar routine: lunch at Market One on campus (our usual: burgers and fries) and small talk about life at JMU — his as a student and mine overseeing the student newspaper and teaching.

ThinkstockPhotos-462259013“So, what do you want to get out of our time together?” I asked. It’s a question I routinely ask the students I mentor through JMU’s Civic Learning Mentoring Program, which is run through the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices. The goal of the weekly meetings, held for eight to 15 weeks, is to give students who have violated a university policy the chance to be mentored and think through their mission and goals.

The program, begun in the mid-1990s, has grown over the years so that at least 50 students are being mentored at any given time, says RJ Ohgren, who coordinates it. The program, which represents about 7 percent of all violation sanctions, has a pool of nearly 100 trained faculty and staff mentors to call on.

Usually, students greet my question with a stare or a “Let me think about that and I’ll let you know.” The next week, I’ll ask again, and the response is similar.

Stephen was different.

“I’d like to do something,” he told me, “accomplish something.” He had a couple ideas: Maybe we could learn something together or work on a project.

Stephen’s early reception to being mentored surprised me, given where he’d been when he started meeting with me in the fall of 2012. Already, he had spent a semester suspended from JMU and attending a community college near his hometown after violating alcohol policies for a third time. The Civic Learning program was his last chance to get through his final year and graduate in May.

It took a while for us to figure out what our “project” would be. As fall turned into winter and Stephen started thinking about graduation, we continued having lunch and I kept listening. Meanwhile, Stephen was trying to figure out to do with the communications degree he was about to get.

One day over lunch, Stephen casually told me how he had recently helped some of his friends settle an argument.

“Doesn’t conflict bother you?” I asked, adding that I dreaded it.

No, he told me, adding that he actually enjoyed helping people figure out how to solve disagreements.

“Have you ever heard of the mediation center?” I asked.

He hadn’t, so later that week I sent Stephen some information on Harrisonburg’s Fairfield Center, a mediation group that was looking for interns. It could be a place to test out whether mediation fit him. He eventually got the internship, working about 30 hours a week during the spring semester.

Given the academic, emotional, relational and career challenges that come with being in college these days, there’s a lot to mine, but finding these gold nuggets takes a good amount of listening. Students in the program are often at a crossroads, even if they won’t admit it, which is often be the case.

Another guy I mentored, Robby (I’ve changed his name*), came to me unhappy about having to be mentored. He told me up front he wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. Week after week, as we engaged in small talk over coffee, I wondered if I was making a difference.

But I kept on listening, and almost at the end of our dozen weeks together, Robby met me with sagging eyes and a solemn expression. After spending much of the semester working to make it into a fraternity he really wanted to be part of, he had found out the night before he did not make the cut.

The disappointment had crushed him, and the only way he knew how to deal with the pain was to plan for a night of drinking during the coming weekend.

Several times, I told Robby I was sorry he didn’t get in, and sorry he felt so hurt. I shared with him several major disappointments I had faced, including a recent freelancing job I loved and then lost. “It stinks,” I told him. There was no glossing over it: Disappointment is painful.

But then I challenged him: “This is an opportunity,” I said, “to figure out a way to deal with your disappointment. You can numb it with alcohol this weekend, but after you sober up, the disappointment will still be there.”

I wish the next part of the story was Robby’s telling me he found a new way to deal with pain. He didn’t, not this time, anyway. I see mentoring as seed-planting, though. Maybe that advice didn’t sprout fruit now. Maybe later, though.

I don’t often see the long-term effects of mentoring. After they’ve finished their required weeks with me, the guys I mentor are glad to be done, and I only hear from them again through a reflection paper they write. That’s usually it.

I expected the same thing with Stephen. It had been nearly two years since he graduated when a friend heard about my time volunteering as a mentor and asked if I’d write about it. I sent Stephen an e-mail asking if he still had his reflection paper. Somehow, I had misplaced it.

A day later, he wrote back and attached the paper, and I chuckled again as I read his description of me: “a kick-ass mentor.” That was a new superlative, but one I am proud to own.

Stephen also suggested we have lunch sometime. So a couple weeks later, as the spring semester was winding down, he drove from Northern Virginia and we met for pizza.

Stephen was the same confident, outgoing person I remembered, but he had matured and become less arrogant than when I had seen him as a student, something he’d later confirm.

“I’m getting married!” he announced as we sat down at our booth, then flipped through some photos on his phone before getting to his engagement photo.

Stephen has had several jobs since graduation, all of them in sales, and each one has led to the next. But that first job, right out of college? The interviewer noticed Stephen had worked in a mediation center, and it was the clincher.

I couldn’t help but remind Stephen that I had told him about the mediation center during our Civic Learning days. He hadn’t forgotten.

After about 90 minutes catching up over lunch, Stephen headed home and I went back to my office.

A few days later, I had another appointment with Robby. We drank coffee. He talked. Thinking back to my pizza lunch with Stephen, I couldn’t help but hope.


To learn more about the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices, visit their website:


Brad Jenkins (’99) is the general manager of The Breeze, the twice-weekly student newspaper at JMU. In that role, he oversees operations of the print newspaper, a news website, a lifestyles magazine and an annual magazine guide to JMU. He also is an adjunct instructor in the School of Media Arts and Design, where he teaches feature writing and feature-magazine production. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in JMU’s College Student Personnel Administration program, a decision that was inspired in part by his experience as a mentor.


* Editor’s note: The student named Stephen in this story has given his permission for his first name to be used. The other student, Robby, is a pseudonym.

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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