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The Virtue and Necessity of Mentorship

Successful students remember the professors who guided them.

The Virtue and Necessity of Mentorship

Successful students remember the professors who guided them.

Mischa Willett was positive he didn’t belong on his college campus. In fact, he quit, in dramatic fashion, during his freshman year. “I dropped out of Wheaton and went to work in a mall in Arizona, measuring men for fitted shirts,” he says. But Willett’s freshman composition professor, Jeffry Davis, knew Willett belonged with eager peers and challenging assignments, not pacified customers and polyester blends. “Somehow, he noticed I was gone, found my phone number—before the internet was even a thing!—called my house, spoke to my mother, and then called me at work to convince me to return to college.”

Willett is now an accomplished poet and is so at home on a college campus that he is a professor at Seattle Pacific University. The relationship he formed with Davis that helped bring him to this point is not one he feels he would have been lucky enough to find at just any school. “Going to a Christian college was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I’d like to create similarly transformative experiences for my own students,” he says. He and Davis are close to this day; they had lunch last week.

Lore Ferguson Wilbert, author of Handle with Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry (B&H Books, 2020), treasures her memories of endless office hours spent with her English professor at Lee University, a small Christian liberal arts school in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Her professor passed on much more to her than a love of British literature. “Dr. Susan Rogers had a wide way of looking at the world, which, as a college sophomore, seemed foreign to me,” Wilbert says.

She can still recall the soft, gentle tones of Rogers’s voice as they discussed faith, the church, writing, and countless other subjects. “She was only 15 years older than me—which seems so young to me now, and so sage to me then,” Wilbert says. Rogers passed away in 2014, but her legacy lives on in Wilbert and students like her.

Professors like Rogers and Davis recognize their profession as more than a job. Teaching, for them, reaches far outside the classroom, and they argue it cannot be understood as simply a career. Such professors are motivated by a divine sense of vocation, one that inspires self-sacrifice, mentorship, and a desire to listen and learn from one’s students. These educators willingly offer their rapt attention, earnest prayers, and extra time. While these professors’ tenure may last 30 or 40 years, their legacies endure for generations.

An Easy Call

Chelsea Weeks was a senior at Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU) when her father was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Within a few months, he passed away, and Weeks, who had lost her mother many years before, entered what she describes as one of the darkest times of her life.

Weeks knew that she had an ally in her professor and advisor, Holly Easttom, but she didn’t realize just how much an advocate Easttom would prove to be. During the semester after her father’s passing, Weeks says Easttom—whom students affectionately call by her first name, Holly—was truly in her corner. “Holly took care of everything for me,” she said. “She made sure all my other professors knew [about my father] and helped me manage the stress and grief. She would hold me and let me cry when I needed to, or make me laugh when I thought I would never be able to again.”

In Easttom’s view, stepping in for Weeks was an easy call. The journalism professor and student newspaper advisor considers fostering relationships with her students to be the most important role of her profession. In fact, she gives students her cellphone number on the first day. “When a difficult time came knocking, I knew she would continue to be a rock for me,” Weeks says. “She always had been.”

“It was so important to me to have her back, to make sure that she was supported in every way that we could think of,” Easttom said of Weeks. But the professor is quick to point out that while the relationship she has with Weeks is a special one, it is not an anomaly on the OBU campus. The university’s smaller program sizes encourage individualized attention for every student, which gives professors like Easttom the opportunity to be continuously, practically involved throughout an undergraduate’s career.

When commencement day comes, Easttom says, she feels a deep connection to her graduating students. “There’s something about getting that wide-eyed freshman in your class who is terrified of their own potential, worried about their place in the world, and watching them cross that stage, knowing that they’re going to be an impressive asset. It’s just an amazing journey,” she says.

Weeks, who graduated in 2019, now lives and works in Spain, which she credits in large part to Easttom’s mentorship: “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her encouragement and belief in who I could be.”

Tea and Sympathy

Weeks’s experience walking through the depths of grief with Easttom might not have been possible if the two had been at a different type of institution.

Each professor interviewed for this story explained that in Christian educational settings the dynamic between faculty and students can take on a deeper, spiritual dimension.

Professors can not only invest in their students’ educational goals but also provide Christian mentorship, prayerful counsel, and a steady mooring during tumultuous times. Such was the case for Ryan Frantzis and his mentor, Charles Elliott, at Cedarville University.

Elliott, himself a Cedarville graduate, says the school gives him “the freedom to be his true self,” both in the content of his courses and his style of teaching. He remembers that Frantz is was proactive in asking for mentoring and that their sessions together were mutually encouraging.

When Frantzis first asked Elliott to be his mentor, he didn’t get an answer right away. A communications professor with decades of experience, Elliott said he’d prayerfully consider it. It wasn’t until a week later that Frantzis and Elliott connected for what would become the first of many conversations about academics, life, and their shared passion for Christ.

For three and a half years, Elliott met with Frantzis on Wednesday afternoons. Frantzis recalls sharing his joys and sorrows with his mentor without reservation as they grew into a comfortable rapport. “What never fails to astound me is that point in the mentoring relationship where you feel comfortable with one another because the trust and confidence have been built over time,” Elliott says, adding that each and every mentorship relationship is a unique one.

In April 2014, on an emotional night when his three-year romantic relationship came to an end, a distraught Frantzis called his parents to give them the news.

Elliott was the next phone call.

It was 10:45 p.m., and Elliott was suffering with a terrible migraine. “When he answered, I could tell he was under the weather,” Frantzis remembers, “so I tried to rush him off the phone rather than taking up his time.” But when Elliott heard the wavering in Frantzis’s voice, he didn’t hesitate. “Ryan,” Elliott said, “come to my home. My wife and I will put on some tea.” Frantzis went, and they talked deep into the night. He was consoled and encouraged. It is an act of kindness, Frantzis says, that he will never forget.

After graduating the following year with a BA in applied communications, Frantzis moved back to his hometown of Syracuse. He says he feels fortunate that Elliott is still only a phone call away.

Easing the Transition

For students who aren’t ready to be as direct as Frantzis, there are other gateways to developing a mentoring relationship.

As a new freshman at Pepperdine University, Alessandra “Allie” Gesiotto felt out of her depth at her new campus. “From the beginning, the entire transition is something that’s scary,” she says. “You’re in class being taught by these professors who are very, very well educated and professional. It’s intimidating to students at times.”

The challenge was compounded by the dramatic difference between Gesiotto’s family home in Ohio and the Malibu, California, campus. She remembers feeling acutely disconnected, and at one point she considered transferring.

A few things helped ground Gesiotto at Pepperdine. One was a required freshman seminar called Resilience-Informed Skills Education (RISE), which aims to help students calibrate their expectations as they adjust to university life. Another was Pepperdine’s vice president of student affairs, Connie Horton, who taught the seminar.

“RISE is our invitation to students to develop their resilience skills, care for themselves and their peers in times of need, and reinforce their ability to bounce back from life’s challenges no matter how great or small,” Horton explains.

“Connie showed me from day one that I could expect a unique connection between the students, the professors, and the faculty at Pepperdine,” Gesiotto explains.

The seminar is built on a foundation of honesty and authenticity. “Right from the beginning,” Horton says, “students introduce themselves to the class, and I introduce myself—who is my family, what is my life like. I went [to Pepperdine] too, a long time ago.” A space is created for placing classroom learning in the larger context of lifelong learning. As Horton puts it, “We try to see each other as human beings, fellow journeyers.”

Each year, the RISE seminar concludes with a family-style dinner at Horton’s home right before finals, when homesickness tends to be at its height. Gesiotto feels Horton set the table (literally and figuratively) for her spiritual and academic growth over the following years. Recalling how “welcoming, friendly, kind, patient, accepting, and genuine” Professor Horton was during that freshman class, she jumped at the opportunity to invite Horton into a mentorship role through Pepperdine’s unique Club Convo program.

Each Club Convo is a small-group program that focuses on a topic weaving together life and faith. Along with one other student, Gesiotto and Horton formed a Club Convo and began meeting weekly.

Horton is quick to point out how much she enjoys these meetings. “It’s one of the most rewarding pieces of working in a university setting,” she said. “[We’ll be sitting] on a university patio overlooking a gorgeous sunset and just talking about life, and what’s happened, and what does God have to do with that.” Gesiotto, now entering the second semester of her junior year, has become a leader on campus. She says she looks back at her college experience with gratefulness, which she credits largely to her sessions with Horton. “Connie taught me that everything is going to happen the way it’s supposed to happen,” she said. “You kind of have to let go. Realizing that has helped me to grow and be more independent.”

“I [still] can picture Gesiotto as a freshman,” says Horton, “front and center in the class, probably a little nervous, taking it all in. “To see her go from that nervous freshman to being an orientation leader, someone who believes they can help others—it has been great.”

At Risk

Some educational institutions enroll several thousand students and have existed for hundreds of years with support from generations of alumni. Many smaller Christian colleges, by contrast, were founded during the 20th century, and like Oklahoma Baptist University, enroll 2,000 or fewer. Their substantially smaller pool of alumni translates into smaller endowments: Without the cushion that endowments provide, smaller religious schools are less able to weather economic downturns. Since the Great Recession, they are struggling to survive; many are cutting programs, shuttering campuses, or even being forced to close entirely.

In light of these closings, the risk of losing the very environments best able to foster the remarkable faculty relationships mentioned here becomes a stark reality. As Easttom notes, small student pools draw a special mix of students and professors that are excited about long-term, interpersonal connections. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these kinds of connections can’t happen on a deep spiritual level, and with institutional support, anywhere else.

Open Doors

It’s difficult to know how to reach out and form a mentorship relationship; there is no How Your Professor Can Help You Navigate College guide handed out with each syllabus. It can feel intimidating to cross over into more personal territory with a brilliant and accomplished professor. But most professors went into academia for one primary reason: They love their students.

Taylor Johnson, a 2012 Southwestern Assemblies of God University graduate, is proof of that. In fact, he credits his career to the thoughtfulness of a single professor. After learning of Johnson’s desire to pursue stand-up comedy, youth and student ministries professor Garland Owensby, who was also a comedian, began to take Johnson to various events, allowing him to open the show (despite Johnson self-admitting to not having much talent). Owensby taught Johnson about comedy, kindness, and friendship. The two maintain regular contact as Johnson now works full-time as a comedian, sending his writing to Owensby for notes and even taking over his laundry to wash whenever he’s in town. “It’s crazy to think about how we’ve gone from a professor-student relationship to just a close friendship,” Johnson says.

All of the students mentioned above were smart and driven, but their professors said it was their openness both in the classroom and in their relationships that facilitated their mentorship connection.

“Each professor absolutely is an open door of knowledge, commitment, dedication, and faith,” says Easttom. “All students have to do is pass through the door—what a huge return for such a small act! I wish I could encourage more students to do that.”

Kathryn Watson is a freelance writer based in New York City. She lives with her husband and two sons.

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