On Being an Effective Mentor

By Allan Wasega, JKUAT Computer Science student, KamiLimu Management Committee Member

In February 2020, while receiving her Elsevier Award, KamiLimu’s founder and Program Lead, Dr Chao had the following to say about being a scientist:

One of the greatest privileges of being a scientist is that we have the ability to hold the ladder up for others and, in so doing, build skills and change lives.

In her own work, Dr Chao achieves this objective by being the lead mentor to a group of students through KamiLimu. The demand for the program has been rising over the years, and this year, we had an acceptance rate of 23%.

Dr Chao giving the acceptance speech at the 2020 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award Ceremony.

However, what does it mean to be a mentor, and can any accomplished person be one? The paper Even Einstein Struggled by Lin-Siegler et al. (2016) offers some insights regarding this subject from which we all can learn. The article examines why many students shy away from science-related courses despite believing that anyone can excel in these fields. According to the authors, one of the main reasons for this disconnect is the belief by these learners that they do not possess the mental fortitude required to be outstanding scientists. Hence, they are likely to give up on their academic pursuits whenever they face a challenge as they believe that scientific achievement reflects innate mental ability rather than effort. To counter these misconceptions, the authors shared with a group of 402 students the failure stories of three renowned scientists: Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Michael Faraday. Using this approach, the researchers demonstrate two key points: to inspire a group of people, one should be viewed as a role model; but, at the same time, it takes more than one’s accomplishments to be an effective role model.

The Characteristics of an Effective Mentor

Josphat Cherorot a Systems Engineer at Adrian Kenya speaking to KamiLimu mentees. Josphat was a Professional Mentor during KamiLimu 4.0.

According to the authors, a role model should possess three attributes: display competence; succeed on goals that are construed as attainable; and, be viewable as relevant or similar to the self. Thus, it is not enough to be well-known or have a series of accomplishments under their belts, but role models should package their stories in a manner that does not disconnect them from their followers. Thus, Lin-Siegler et al. used the failure stories of Einstein, Marie Curie and Faraday to achieve this last objective since they wanted to show that everyone fails, regardless of their stature. In this way, they “hoped to confront students’ belief that scientists are simply geniuses who do not need to work hard.” Indeed, at the end of their study, the researchers established that exposing students to the struggle stories of scientists enhanced the former’s classroom performance more significantly than exposing them to the achievement stories of the latter. What do these findings mean for mentors, or those hoping to be mentors?

First, being outstanding in your field alone does not guarantee that you will be a good mentor. It is hugely important that you should have domain knowledge of your area of specialization. In fact, not doing so can make one appear incompetent or, worse, a fraud. Therefore, if, for example, you want to be an academic mentor, it helps significantly if you are an authority in the academic field. However, this is not the only desirable feature of an effective mentor as demonstrated by Lin-Siegler et al.

Secondly, a mentor should be a relatable figure who identifies with the struggles faced by his or her mentees. This point means that such individuals should not be afraid of showing or talking about their vulnerabilities or weaknesses as they humanize themselves in this process. In this way, they can help their followers to interpret the difficulties they face as normal occurrences that everyone experiences and, eventually, overcomes with persistence. For that reason, mentors should be good storytellers who are not only capable of swaying people with their actions but their narratives as well. As Lin-Siegler et al. state:

It is crucial that explanations and descriptions accompany the actions and behaviours of role models to have a lasting impact.

How KamiLimu Embodies these Traits

In the two-plus years that I have been at KamiLimu, I have seen Dr Chao implement some of these concepts in various ways. For instance, I recall last year when she sent out an inhouse email detailing how she — despite being the recipient of numerous awards — still receives rejection emails while making applications. This message came at a point when the program was entering its competition stages, with some of the mentees getting knocked out of competitions designed to simulate real-world experiences, for example, job interviews. Using this method, she demonstrated that everyone receives negative feedback at some point, but such responses do not negate how awesome they are and neither do they reflect their worth. The key, she explained, was to keep on trying and, someday, a door will surely open.

Besides Dr Chao, the mentees at KamiLimu also receive two more levels of support from their peer mentors and professional mentors. These individuals are carefully selected to ensure that they are not only qualified to inspire the mentees to grow both professionally and personally but, at the same time, they embody the traits that we believe can enable them to achieve these objectives successfully. As an illustration, since the launch of the professional mentors model last year, we have worked with over 80 such individuals who are industry practitioners who have achieved various levels of success in their careers. For example, we have worked with Martin Mwangi (Technical Solutions Lead Consultant at Serianu), Scheaffer Okore (Africa Fellow at Obama Foundation), Eunice Nyandat (Founder of MyBizMarkerter), and Jefferson Sankara (Senior Data Scientist at Lori Systems).

Jefferson Sankara, a Senior Data Scientist at Lori Systems, participating in a Mentor-Mentee Mixer during KamiLimu 4.0.

Our peer mentors have also included excellent students such as Victor Kiambi, Joy Bii, Lynet Kosgei, and Rosianah Musyoka, who have all gone ahead to achieve amazing feats in their careers.

What these two groups of individuals share apart from their desire to succeed, however, is their deep desire to give back to their communities. At the same time, they personify characteristics that we desire in our mentors such as being teachable. Indeed, we believe that mentorship is a two-way learning journey, with both the mentor and mentee learning from each other. Therefore, for one to be an effective mentor at KamiLimu — and elsewhere — an individual should be ready and willing to learn from a diverse range of people and subjects. At the same time, these individuals should be prepared to accept and consider information that contradicts their current knowledge-base.

To be a Mentor

Former KamiLimu peer mentors [From left] Francis Amani, Maurine Basoi, Joy Bii, Joan Waweru and Victor Kiambi.

So, what does it mean to be a mentor? Overall, as covered in the article Even Einstein Struggled, these persons must not only be competent in their fields of practice but they must also be relatable figures to their mentees. At the same time, they should personify traits such as being teachable so as to build long-lasting relationships with the people they seek to inspire. Personally, it means knowing your stuff, and, at the same time, not being afraid of showing that you too face and try to overcome challenges just as the people you seek to inspire. As Whoopi Goldberg said:

We’re here for a reason. I believe a bit of the reason is to throw little torches out to lead people through the dark.

At KamiLimu, I have seen the positive influence that mentors can have on one’s life, and that is the reason that we should all pay it forward, but in a manner that is both effective and impactful.

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KamiLimu

KamiLimu is a free 8-month structured mentorship program that seeks to augment classroom learning for tech-aligned students at Kenyan universities.