Dimensions of wellness: Social, Intellectual, Emotional, Occupational, Academic

I stood in front of 40 college student body presidents and shared as much as I could in 10 minutes about mental health, prevention, and the importance of wellness and self-care.  They were hungry for the information and far more attentive than many “adult” audiences I usually present to.  I spoke about braiding funding, looking for creative ways to support prevention of mental illness, and using your position of power to do good.  They lined up after the presentation to press me on statements I made, asking in-depth questions about the topic.  The excitement each student expressed about the topic of mental health surprised me.  Over 80 university student body presidents interested in bettering the mental health of their fellow students. Wow!

I was dumbfounded.  What had I done differently today than I do in any other presentation? I used slides that I have used before, except this time I adapted them to apply to college life.  This was a new slant on a regular talk I give about mental health.  What happened to inspire such a response?

Thinking back to that Sunday morning in June 2018, I realized that I hadn’t done anything special or different.  Although, the audience was both special and different.  I was the seasoned presenter on a panel of three, with over 12 years of experience in mental health.  Some students said I inspired them not to be afraid of using plain language to explain complex data.  Others said they liked how I involved them in the presentation, asking their thoughts before speaking, and affirming the responses they gave me.  They liked how I took their ideas, their hopes, their questions, and their concerns for the mental health of their universities and affirmed that yes… all of these things are important and valid perspectives related to the mental health of young adults.   I had done nothing different or special except be a mentor in the moment.

Lost- the years I spent trying to find a mentor

The theme of this workout reminds me of all the times I spent lost as a young person, wondering about the right path and looking for answers in everyone around me.  I was the first to go to college in my family, and still the only one to graduate with a master’s degree.  I didn’t have the luxury of a family legacy at a prestigious college or a family business to inherit.  I didn’t have older siblings to help me apply to college, fill out the FAFSA, or help advocate for me when life at school got unfair.  I made honor role, had a 4.3 GPA graduating from high school, and average SAT scores. 

When I visited my high school guidance counselor, he didn’t encourage me to go to college and didn’t tell me how I could get there or how to pay for it.  My art teacher was wonderful, but she didn’t understand why I wanted to study psychology and not art.  My AP and Honors teachers were also wonderful women but didn’t invest in me except a few token words of encouragement.  I was involved in extra-curricular activities as the president of the Art Club and vice president of the Blue and Gold Honor society.  I was the average honors student, no one special, yet I found ways to stand out.  I often dressed in costumes and vintage clothing just to express my personal style- before these were common hipster trends.  I wore cat ears to school on as many days as possible and oscillated between skater girl, ska girl, punk girl, and honors student.  I was me, and for the longest time I was lost.

I can’t say I found myself when I got to college, I continued to be lost.  I suffered emotionally and eventually had thoughts of suicide and isolation. I had a few friends but found it difficult to see them since I worked a lot to pay for school waking up at 6am and working until 10 pm.  I couldn’t get comfortable during the first year in college.  Something made me feel different.  I was living half between student life and half between the life of a working adult.  I pushed myself studying, and still got good grades but that was because I never socialized like normal first year students.  You wouldn’t find me at parties, drinking, or even out on a Friday night.  I was returning from work, studying and in bed.  After a very trying first year filled with social situations I was unsure how to navigate, I was happy to leave that year full of transition behind.

Wendie eating fries in her 2003 Nissan Altima.
Wendie eating fries in her 2003 Nissan Altima.

Finding Myself and Finding My Mentors

During my college years I looked far and wide for people to invest in me.  Mentors I could learn from.  I saw other students gravitating towards professors who called them “their students” and wrote them letters of recommendation for grad school.  I tried to make these bonds and stayed after class asking questions and talking to professors, only to be ignored or told I wasn’t in their major and therefore wasn’t really one of “their students”.   I was pushed away and left to find my own path.

SAGE Scholars class of 2000- University of California Irvine.
SAGE Scholars class of 2000- University of California Irvine.

At the end of my freshman year I applied to a mentoring, internship, and professional development program called SAGE Scholars.  There I finally found what I was craving, an opportunity to grow along with others who were just like me.  The program was designed for first year students, many the first in their families to attend college.  We had similar stories, similar backgrounds and the same drive to change the world.  Even more than that, we had the same mentor who believed in us, Karina.  And from there, I was able to stop working office jobs for random companies and take an internship at a non-profit organization sponsored by donors with paid tuition and a small stipend.  SAGE Scholars even taught us how to be mentors and I got my first opportunity to mentor two young women from Estancia High School’s AVID program in Costa Mesa, CA. This was my first time being a mentor and it was scary but exciting to be taking this step with my friends who were all growing into amazing professionals with me.  My internship launched my interest in the field of social work and provided me with many mentors and friends that I still hold dear to this day.

Wendie and mentor Karina Hamilton at UC Irvine's SAGE Scholars banquet.
Wendie and mentor Karina Hamilton at UC Irvine’s SAGE Scholars banquet.

I spent 4 years working for that same non-profit and stayed one extra year after college was over before heading to New York to attend Columbia University for graduate school.  By that time, I had grown out of my cat ears and into my own skin.  I was confident in my choices, had learned how to be mentored and listen to advice, and how use my fortunate experiences to inspire those coming up after me.  I had gained experience speaking in public, working on teams, solving problems in a professional workgroup and environment, raised money and managed volunteers, and had even learned how to hob-nob with donors and important people.

I’ve had many mentors over the years, both formal and informal.  After graduate school I joined the government and I looked outside my agency for a mentor.  Mark was assigned as my mentor in a random matching process that turned out to be a great fit for what I needed.  Mark taught me to weather the bad times and consider my future choices critically.  We had many conversations about how not to get stuck in my career, how to move laterally in order to move forward, and what to look for in the next steps I was going to take.  I will always be thankful to Mark for his continued support and encouragement throughout my career.

From Mentee to Mentor

My first attempts at mentoring weren’t exactly the lasting mentoring relationship you think about when you hear the word mentor.  I struggled to connect with my mentee, although we had fun together, nothing more than a superficial relationship developed, and it didn’t last past our assigned mentoring period.  I didn’t get discouraged, I just kept thinking about what I could have done better.  How I could have improved our connection, made sure to check-in more often, or engage in quality conversations.  I could have asked more questions.  I could have expressed more interest in their passions and shared less about mine.

Wendie with her first intern, Jesika.
Wendie with her first intern, Jesika.

Eventually, I began working with interns and found my mentoring supportive voice.  I decided that internships shouldn’t be based only in an office and regularly took my intern Mallory on field trip days- which she loved.  We would spend the day in homeless court or drug court or a committee meeting, then immediately go to lunch to debrief.  I’d ask her what she thought of our experience that day and listened to her questions and thoughts about how the world could be better.  I encouraged her to follow her passions for public health, mental health, and advocacy.  I would eventually learn to leverage and harness the energy of younger workers and interns for projects and would have interns gravitating to work with me instead of in their assigned areas.  I had three of the most dynamic interns ever working with me to run a national mental health awareness campaign and we created a website, toolkit, and infographic all while managing a flash work group of experts.  There was literally nothing that could stop us, except their internships ending.  Now I strive to turn mentees into lifelong friends and I continue to support them in the next steps of their careers, attend their weddings and celebrate the birth of their children when time comes for all the adult steps in life beyond the workplace.

Erin and Kait celebrate end of internship.
Erin and Kait celebrate end of internship.

Helpful and Unhelpful Mentoring

Recently I had a chat with a colleague, Melodye, and invited her to contribute to this blog post with her thoughts on mentoring, both the good and the bad.  We were surprised, or maybe not so surprised, to find out that both of us had bad experiences with people who we thought would be helpful to us.  It is very unfortunate that many of those experiences were with females who we thought would be a good mentor or would be able to help us move forward.  Well… I’ll leave it to Melodye to tell you more about helpful and unhelpful mentors.

Some words from Melodye

“I’ve had several mentoring relationships. Each relationship taught me about personal and professional growth. My first mentor/mentee relationship happened when I was an undergraduate psychology student.  The mentor was an Executive Director at a community based nonprofit organization. She was nice and someone I thought could help me figure out what to do with my life. During our first lunch meeting, she complained about managing the day to day operations of her nonprofit. Not once did she ask me about my interests or goals. We wrapped up our meeting with her telling me to call whenever. I followed up with several

calls and even an unannounced visit to her office but we never spoke again. I did not know what to expect of my mentor. My first mentoring lesson: discuss my needs for my mentor/mentee relationship.

The second mentor I had was in graduate school. I was attending the School of Social Services Administration at University of Chicago. I was eager to connect with those in the field that were doing what I thought I wanted to do – community organizing. Knowing that I needed to state my mentoring needs upfront, I approached a well-known community organizer to ask if he’d be my mentor and show me how to be a real community organizer.  He agreed and immediately put me to work. I was more like his personal assistant or intern. He assigned me to make flyers for upcoming meetings and door knocking and attending meetings and writing op-eds and pretty much anything that came across his desk. So not too much mentoring but I did learn a lot about the administrative functions of community organizing. I did not expect to do so much busy work as his mentee. I expected him to introduce me to other organizers. I expected him to teach me how to empower the powerless and advocate for the voiceless. My second mentoring lesson: discuss my expectations for my mentor/mentee relationship.

My most recent mentor/mentee relationship is as a mentor. I’m mentoring a first-year social work student. As a mentor, I am attentive and inquisitive. I ask her what she needs and we set expectations at our first lunch meeting. I used to think that I did not benefit as a mentee. My experience as a mentee has helped me become a better mentor.”

Mentoring Wellness

Melodye’s words are powerful and remind me of how much being a mentee is related to key dimensions of wellness: Social, Intellectual, Emotional, Occupational, and Academic.  Mentoring relationships may start in an academic or work setting but they can lead to a much richer and deeper connection that can support your emotional, intellectual,

and social wellness over time.  Mentors have helped me find my voice and career path and helped me feel supported in life.  While not every mentoring experience has been positive, every experience helped me learn how to become a better mentor for the next generation of professionals.  My hardships and time spent lost have helped me guide others towards their goals.

Who’s helped you get to where you are today?  When you think of a mentor, who comes to mind?  How did they help support your academic/professional career and your emotional wellness?

Take a minute to send a note and thank your favorite mentor, they may have no idea how much they’ve contributed to your wellness.


(Thanks to Melodye for contributing to this blog post and thanks to all my mentors and mentees who’s stories were shared in this post. )

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