Maps and Mentors

St. Lawrence Magazine Essay - Winter 2012

“Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey; / without her you’d not have set upon the road.”
--C. P. Cavafy (translated by Daniel Mendelsohn)

I was teaching a class recently about the nature of complex organizations. The discussion turned quickly inward to the students’ own understanding of their University and its future. “The St. Lawrence Promise,” the new institutional Strategic Map, was their text, their grounding of curiosity and questions. I was pointedly asked, “Where is this map taking us?”

As a teacher, my instinct is to “draw out” the student’s own discovery of a reply. So, I countered with a question that would suggest the purpose of the map. Do you recall, I began, Homer’sOdyssey, Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, or Luke Skywalker, who must endure the journey of a hero with a destiny? After a dangling pause and some knowing looks, I simply said, “our Strategic Map is taking us home.”

The symbolic idea of the map is to represent an odyssey through the perils of the world’s economy, its volatile markets and the rapidly changing landscape of American higher education. It is the way through a dark wood and across the deep waters of uncertainty. Its purpose is to preserve, sustain and grow all that we cherish about St. Lawrence as a place strong and ready to do its best work. The map is not taking us away from ourselves; it should not be viewed as a change document. Rather, the map ought to affirm and inspire that all-too-human adage “there’s no place like home.”

One of the main contours of the new map features the central support of alumni (for more on this aspect, see page 10). We know, for example, that nearly half the students on campus today trace their presence at St. Lawrence to the influential good effect of an individual Laurentian. My first St. Lawrence mentor entered the University in 1918, so I have a strong affinity for our best and oldest traditions. 

Our map suggests larger possibilities for alumni contact to be further translated. It will naturally originate in recruiting young people to campus, but it can and must be more than that while they are students on campus and also after they leave this “home” for a life’s work and journey.

The last line of Homer’s epic The Odyssey reads like homage to the goddess Athena, but then the author catches us by sudden surprise with the final words, “yes, but the goddess still kept Mentor’s build and voice.” Who was Mentor? Today, we know instantly what the concept of “mentoring” means, something Laurentians excel at doing for each other, as a quiet, encouraging force of learning the early territory of a career. And yet, knowing who the first Mentor was ought to amplify the Laurentian trademark of serving our current students and recent graduates in manifest ways.

When Odysseus reluctantly departs home for the Trojan War, he leaves behind his young son, Telemachus. While the father is away for years, the son develops into a thoughtful and confident young man. His overall education and his acquisition of moral values, however, do not happen by chance. The last thing Odysseus does before leaving Ithaca is to ask his most trusted friend to keep an eye on his household, particularly his young son. The friend’s name is Mentor and this man instantly gives his solemn word that he would always be present for Telemachus. 
Mentor’s honor, integrity and wisdom remain constant; a promise made to a friend was fulfilled. By that selfless devotion, a young life was forever shaped. 

The association of the name “Mentor” with the pivotal role of guide and adviser turns up constantly in the biographies of the most interesting people. And because of that common thread, historians caution against the celebratory claims of men and women emerging “self-made.” The name of Telemachus’s great teacher is originally derived from a base word that means “remember, think, and counsel.” These simplest terms give ample definition to the task mentors, such as St. Lawrence alumni, must naturally comprehend.

At this stage of my life, I have now spent many years trying to be a mentor; I offer no across-the-board wisdom of successfully doing so. Sometimes, I believe my efforts were terribly inadequate; sometimes, I seemed to do very little, but maybe even that was enough to be useful. One of the lasting lessons, however, comes right from Mentor himself when he says to Telemachus, “The gods have watched your progress since your birth.”

By simply being aware and watchful, by paying attention and patiently observing, the great art of the most effective mentor is expressed. When a young person is noticed by someone, when an encouraging, unexpected word is given as praise or challenge, and when the invitation, “let’s talk,” is issued, the magic happens. We set them upon the road; they turn toward home.--WLF