Commentary: Reflections of a Writing Mentor

During our final meeting of the semester, in what had become our Tuesday afternoon ritual, a young woman about to complete her first semester at St. Thomas sits across from me. Her eyes and an interrupting “umm” or two reveal her trepidation. In an act of courage, she asks me for advice on adjusting to life in the dorms. In that moment, I’m reminded of who I am to her: a mentor. I’m someone who has been-there-done-that, someone who can lend an empathetic ear and perhaps a bit of guidance. I listen and nod because I’ve lived this college experience that she’s just learning to navigate.

This May, I’ll graduate with a double major in English and communication and journalism. Since my sophomore year, I’ve worked as a peer consultant in St. Thomas’ Center for Writing, collaborating with undergraduate and graduate students to improve their reading, analytical and writing skills.

As an extension of my work as a peer consultant, I was a writing mentor last fall for the Academic Development Program (ADP), which supports first-year students who need extra help building college-level reading and writing proficiencies. These students enroll in English 110 and a paired course, each taught by a full-time faculty member. As a writing mentor, I was embedded into one of the English 110 courses, attended class sessions and met with students individually to work on writing assignments and answer questions.

I didn’t apply for the peer consultant gig expecting to be a mentor. That word always seemed equal parts frightening and forceful. I’m just someone who loves the texture of words and the power of a well-articulated thesis statement. Within the first year of working in the Center for Writing, I grew into and saw the value in my mentoring role, and it’s why I enthusiastically responded to the call for ADP mentors.

Many of my writing consultations in the Center for Writing occur with first-year writers whose parents or professors (or both) have encouraged them to make an appointment with us. We sit down together, and I begin by asking about the class, the professor, the content: What assignment are you working on? What have you enjoyed? How’s the class overall? What are you struggling with? Sometimes their answers are confident and passionate: They’ve connected with a professor or have, at the very least, found a friend in the class. I smile in those moments, comforted that these students are beginning to feel like they belong on campus.

Other freshman writers answer me with shoulder shrugs and sighs. Some don’t understand the relevance of the required work; others shroud a fear of writing under a thick coat of indifference. I’ll continue to ask these students questions, searching for moments to connect and offer my commiseration. I try to demystify and invite them to take part in the writing process, meeting them wherever they may be. I nod; I encourage; I challenge; I agree. Then, about 45 minutes into our appointment, some students (certainly and sadly not all), sit a bit taller. They take the lead. They begin to talk more than me, pursuing an idea that’s sparked in a beautifully and seemingly spontaneous way. Their confidence builds. They grab a pen and begin scribbling notes, while I try to contain my smile to an acceptable width. But sometimes we do little victory dances together.

I can’t fix everything in our hour-long appointment, and students don’t leave with all the answers. Some are angry I didn’t “fix” their paper, while some are a bundle of nerves because the assignment’s due at midnight. Some, though, walk out with a palpable sense of purpose, a confidence that, yes, they can write this paper and, yes, they do belong on this campus.

College, full of joyful, messy transitions, challenges us with more than earning good grades. Yes, we write thoughtful papers and study feverishly for exams, but we also adjust to life in the dorms, as the student in English 110 was doing. We share space with people who’ve had different life experiences than us. We traverse a new environment, finding the library, our classrooms and, on our best days, the gym. We begin to understand the liberal arts core curriculum, navigating Murphy Online and strategizing how best to complete our requirements. We, eventually, learn to communicate with professors, building a habit of checking our Outlook inboxes more than just once every two weeks.

Sure, these feats may seem small, but as we accumulate them throughout our college career, we experience success in the most holistic sense of the word. Within each of these acts we take ownership of our education and integrate ourselves into the UST community. Then, perhaps while walking to class or within the celebratory moments of finishing a research paper, we realize that we do, indeed, belong on this campus.

I, too, have faced challenges and made mistakes throughout the past four years, but strong, witty mentors opened their offices and listened, reminding me that I did belong. Their guidance and compassion encouraged me to keep exploring, trying and learning. Because of them, I’ll transition into life beyond the Arches with grace and confidence.

As a writing mentor, this is the confidence I, above all, hope to embolden in my fellow students. Within our conversations about writing introductions and formatting citations, I encourage them to take ownership of the paper they’re writing, an example of how they may approach other areas of their college lives. And if some of them fall in love with writing along the way, well, hey, that’s a bonus that makes my heart sing.