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  • Cary Martin Shelby

Build a Mosaic of Mentors


“I think that you would be an excellent law professor.” It was nearly impossible for me to envision my professor’s observation. I had just completed my first year of law school at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. While he was one of my most zealous mentors and advocates, I felt as if I had barely survived that 1L year.


I will never forget when word quickly spread that it was my 21st birthday during our week-long orientation for law school. I was one of the youngest within my cohort at Northwestern Law, where over 90% of the student body had prior work experience. When I shared that I was also a single parent to a toddler, the tickled shock transformed into an intense disbelief. I did not yet have the tenacity to share the other adversities—that I was once homeless, was a former foster youth, and a survivor of childhood trauma.


Explaining my existence to others was a delicate art form. First, it was the differences that they could see. I was one of the few Black women in our 1L class at Northwestern Law. Convincing others that I belonged within such privileged spaces was what naturally followed. Then it was the differences that were hidden. I would strategically share these differences in a light-hearted manner to thwart any unpleasant reactions. Convincing others that I was competent, despite these differences, was the painful task that followed. With each additional trifecta of differences that I chose to divulge, it became increasingly difficult to convince myself that I belonged. This was the most difficult task of all.


Countless students who are facing comparable adversities will soon begin the arduous process of navigating higher education. They have persevered against deeply troubling statistics. According to one study, adults who have at least one college educated parent have a significantly higher chance of similarly earning a college degree. Only about 3% of former foster youth obtain a college education, while Black students comprise just over 7% of incoming law students. Many such students face continuing challenges even after entering the coveted thresholds of institutions of higher learning. One study found that, “[m]ore than a 1/3 of college students in the United States lack enough to eat and stable housing.”


As for me, my former professor and mentor saw something in me that I could not yet see in myself. Being in a perpetual state of survival mode had made it difficult to strategize an optimal career path. Yet, close to a decade following his initial observation, I embarked upon my career as a rising academic. That journey has now reached a pivotal peak. In July 2021, I was promoted to full professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law.


Deconstructing what has led to my current success as a law professor, and identifying what could multiply success in others, has been one of my life-long missions. It took an intricate mosaic of resources for me to continuously inch forward, and I have since founded the Daughters Mosaic, LLC to help others who are facing adversities to pull together their broken pieces to form a beautiful mosaic, filled with peace, purpose, and power.


My mentor who initially encouraged me to become a law professor, was of course an integral piece of my mosaic. He planted an invaluable seed that grew into a fruitful career. Research has further demonstrated that there are life-long benefits to receiving mentorship such as improved academic performance, promotions, and even higher compensation. However, I am just now fully understanding the importance of building a mosaic of mentors—a team of individuals who will deploy their own resources to help propel you forward with respect to your professional and personal endeavors.


Advocates. Some mentors will serve as your advocates. They may do so formally, where they promote your achievements as a reference for a prospective position. They may even write you a glowing letter of recommendation that you could tailor for future opportunities. Some mentors may take it a step further by advocating for you in spaces that may be hostile to your differences. These battles can occur in professional meetings, social gatherings, or even in hallway conversations. Although many have welcomed my differences without judgment, others have unjustly presumed me incompetent or incapable. Advocates have fought several hidden battles on my behalf related to job offers, promotions, and honors and recognitions. Many such advocates have likewise served as my own personal cheerleaders by regularly rooting for me during the many times that I felt like giving up.


Connectors. Mentors may also function as connectors, where they link you to key networks and opportunities. As I reflect on my undergraduate and law school experiences, there were several paths that I did not even know existed. I still mourn what was lost due to my limited connections as a former foster youth. But I still celebrate what was gained by mentors who connected me to multiple life-changing opportunities. My former law professor for example connected me to a range of fellowships, one of which proved pivotal in accessing academia. I even recall instances where my peers connected me to individuals and organizations that spear-headed my most crucial achievements.


Advisors. Mentors who serve as advisors take a more active role in teaching essential skillsets, such as advising on the rules and processes of institutional structures. Navigating institutions was admittedly one of the few skillsets that I was confident to have mastered. As a college student, I had already traversed complicated structures such as the family courts and a myriad of group homes and foster families. Even still, nothing could prepare me for the insidious structures associated with higher education. Accessing the intricate patchwork of unwritten rules proved to be the most difficult component of all. Mentors who served as my advisors in this regard taught me how to negotiate a job offer, prepare a tenure file, as well as several other integral tasks. Advisors have similarly helped me to manage the latent inequities of these unwritten rules, which unfortunately adversely impact underrepresented communities.


Listeners. Many of my mentors have performed the vital task of simply listening without judgment. Managing childhood trauma is like spending a lifetime singlehandedly fending off a vicious monster that is ten times your size. Constantly processing microaggressions can be just as exhausting. Providing a safe space to vent and process can be just as important as advising, connecting, and advocating. My peers have frequently served this function, particularly those who have endured comparable adversities.


To students who are about to embark upon the journey of higher education: This list of potential mentors is not meant to be exhaustive. Additional categories undoubtedly exist. Some mentors may rise to the level of champions who simultaneously perform more than one of these roles. Irrespective of how we choose to categorize mentors, it is essential to seek out a mosaic of mentors who will assist you in molding your own versions of success. In doing so, you will quickly realize that securing a mentor is not without its challenges. Establishing these kinds of relationships will likely be more difficult amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Some mentors may even disappoint you. You will invariably disagree with several of your mentors on multiple occasions. But remember that they are also human. Do not let this deter you from the ongoing process of cultivating these potential relationships. And before you know it, you will soon become a piece of someone else’s mosaic by mentoring those around you.


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