Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On Mentoring and Love: Thanking Whom?

Mentoring for my students has saved my career. Bernadette Calafell (2007), in her piece “Mentoring and Love: An Open Letter,” writes about the mentoring relationship that saved her career as a tenure-track faculty member within a white dominated institution. This mentoring relationship reminded me of my own feelings of love for my students, and the ways that they allow me to remain a whole person in their presence. By whole person, I mean that I do not have to leave any of my identities at the door. I can be a gay husband, a critical educator, a shaman, a Xicano, a writer, or whatever. Shane Moreman and Persona Non Grata (2011) are a perfect example of the mentoring relationship that I wish to have with my students. In this powerful example of “theories in the flesh,” Moreman, a tenure-track professor at Fresno State University, and Persona Non Grata, an undocumented graduate student, utilize their mentor-mentee relationship to give voice to Persona’s story, which typically would be excluded from academia because of her lack of documentation combined with the real fear of deportation that this political status holds. This work exemplifies the type of teacher I wish to be--one that empowers, supports, yet heals as well. Through autobiographical performance and performative writing, I explore four mentor relationships that I have recently (re)/(dis)entered into thus continuing and complicating the conversation on mentoring and love by questioning: who should thank whom?

I am sitting at my desk with a former Portuguese female student from my very first public speaking class at San José State University. She is beaming and bubbly just like I remember her, yet she is different. She is almost a senior now, and as a communication studies major, she must interview a faculty member from the department about how to be successful with this particular degree. I can tell she has been looking forward to this, and to be honest, I have too. She has kept in touch with most of the class and weaves in their current statuses alongside her questions. So and so is doing great, and he or she is struggling in his/her major. The interview quickly turns into a dialogue as we each move from question to laughter to answer to clarifying question to fond memories to career development. She is still working with my high school buddy at a local restaurant--"he hasn’t told you anything about my past has he?" Her familiar laugh rings and reverberates more memories from that first semester teaching. Inside my head, I laugh at myself because I was her at one point, and now I am on the other side of this type of relationship of love. Is this how my mentors felt? 

Another day, another month, I am back at my desk with another student. This Asian-American male with glasses and a great smile has been warning me for weeks via email and in person that he was coming to interview me. In fact, two days ago, I found him sitting outside this very office waiting for me just to say that he forgot his microphone and would like to reschedule. He didn’t want to insult me by handwriting my answers in note form. He is nervous. He is intimidated but laser-focused on his task. He frames the interview: “I wanted to interview you because I look at you like a mentor. Before I took your class, I was really shy but hearing you say that you were always nervous really help me open up, so when I got this assignment, I thought of you.” I hear his words but have trouble connecting them to my own body. Me? Why would anyone want me to be their mentor? I remember this student well. He visited me in office hours that first week of class last semester--he was nervous then too. He didn’t think he could pass this class, but he did with an excellent grade (for those that care about those arbitrary things) by demonstrating excellent speaking progress and determination to succeed. I’m not sure how to proceed. Was that really me? “I have to disagree... I may have helped but it wasn’t me that did this... it was always you.”

I’m tired. Like Bilbo Baggins of the Shire in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, I feel stretched thin like butter over too much toast, but still, I agreed to two interviews with two former students to help them satisfy assignments for their courses. She is up first and wearing her Latina-identity much differently than I remembered. It is not confidence but purpose that holds her voice stronger and clearer. She wants to know about my activism and how I have pushed back because she remembers protesting with me against the 11th straight student fee hike for California State University students and their families. She has switched majors to communication studies, which is why she now has to interview me. She wants to help her community; she wants to dream about Xicana/o success, yet I hesitate because "when faced with the faces of the next generation of Latina/os, how can we honestly repeat the same mantra that the previous generation said to us? Isn’t it a lie?" (Gutierrez, 2012, p. 6). I see her face change when I tell her that I am heading to the very fringes of Aztlán to get my doctoral degree, so--I can’t be her mentor. I cringe at the irony that building more Latina/o educational pipelines means leaving my community to get a doctoral degree. He’s been listening at the doorway from the linoleum floor. My department is publishing a newsletter, and as the only M.A. graduate student heading to a doctoral program after graduation, my former Filipino student currently a 2nd semester freshman was tasked to interview me. Always brave, he literally scared me that Fall 2011 Halloween with his vampire steel contacts and dark suited costume meant to blend in with the humans to catch us off guard. He is wearing different contacts now and are those diamond earrings? He is my adviser’s assistant, and using that relationship, we reconnect and I am honest with my answers about my graduate experiences as a working-class, queer Xicano male. He can’t believe I’m leaving as he leaves me, and as I write this, I feel vulnerable. Am I really hoping that my disclosures within this mentoring relationship do not end up on the front of the department newsletter? How am I put at risk by mentoring from a place of love?

Mentoring is a huge responsibility for both participants. Like Calafell and Moreman, a mentoring relationship is about love, but for a person of color, it is often about survival. Persona Non Grata needed Moreman to survive in the academy just as much as Moreman needed her. Calafell (2011) reminds us that when it comes to mentoring "the ways people come into our lives, impact us, and in some ways serve as mentors whether we know it or not" are not always controllable. These scholarly works mirror my own lived experience in that my students are often the only people-of-color I interact with in a single day. They listen to my stories of higher education gaps and understand my feelings of being trapped in a system that doesn’t want to hear our voices. Sometimes, it feels like crawling naked over miles of broken glass. When I talk about my husband or my feelings surrounding gender, their eyes do not glaze over and their mouths react inquisitively. Such as, when issues like whiteness or (dis)ability enter the classroom dialogue, they do not push me or each other out of the space but honestly try to grapple with the concepts. In many ways, I am more impressed with them than I am with many of my colleagues in graduate school. No, I cannot stop crawling even if my stomach is leaking entrails and my arms and legs are boney stumps. When I look back, I see my trail of blood cutting a winding path through a scintillating landscape of jagged failed dreams. Is that one of my students I see crawling back there too? Are they using my bloody path to navigate their lives? Like a fish, my muscles spasm sending me flopping forward another stabbing inch. I cannot stop--my students need me.


Calafell, B. M. (2007). Mentoring and love: An open letter. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 7(4), 425-441.

Calafell, B. M. (2011 August 6). On the importance of mentors and friends [blog post]. AcademicZ. Retrieved from

Gutierrez, R. M. (2012 April 6). Xicana/o communication pedagogy: Theorizing an agenda. Xicana/o Graduate Council Spring 2012 Newsletter. Retrieved from

Moreman, S. T. & Persona Non Grata. (2011) Learning from and mentoring the undocumented AB540 student: Hearing an unheard voice. Text and Performance Quarterly, 31(3), 303-320.

1 comment:

  1. I love this post! I totally know what you mean on so many levels. =) I think the "who thanks who?" question is a big one and definitely speaks to a cycle of give and take. I always make it a point to let people (especially my students) know that I learn a great deal from them, too. In fact, it's one of the most rewarding reasons to be an academic. It's a two-way street in academia more often than not, despite the formal divisions of authority and power.

    Here are my favorite parts of your post:

    "I cringe at the irony that building more Latina/o educational pipelines means leaving my community to get a doctoral degree."

    -Isn't that a strange liminal space to be in? I grapple with this often but also feel empowered knowing that my voice as a Latina Ph.D. is refreshing to many students who find me relate-able or even who are just more comfortable opening up and being themselves in my classroom or in a one-on-one conversation because of the identities they perceive me to live. In many ways, I think you could see this as glass half-full - we leave and enter the ranks of higher ed (where there may not be that many of us --Latinos, women, gay, etc. (minorities)-- in a given dept.) but that status also positions us well to provide an outlet for those under served/heard voices. I take pride in having broken glass ceilings and walls, confronted and dealt with underlying or blatant racist/sexist/etc. undertones, however unfortunate, alarming, and disheartening or shocking those encounters can be. Because in the end, the students and future relationships forged are what make this job all worth it! Mentorship is all about helping make things manageable along the way.

    "Like Calafell and Moreman, a mentoring relationship is about love, but for a person of color, it is often about survival."


    "Such as, when issues like whiteness or (dis)ability enter the classroom dialogue, they do not push me or each other out of the space but honestly try to grapple with the concepts."

    -YES! This is how you know they are engaged and comfortable enough with you to truly try to grasp and apply concepts. Moving those "crazy" academic-y words from the textbook to real life = the most powerful form of learning outcome, if you ask me!

    Thanks for your post! This hit home with me for sure. =)