Tea cups and my initial learning as a mentee
A few years ago, when I needed to rethink my professional and life priorities, I made two wise decisions. The first was to buy a tea cup and saucer to use at work. The second was to invest time in learning from a mentor.
Carrying a tea cup filled with tea on a saucer meant I had to slow down a bit when I walked across the campus from a meeting in one building to a meeting in another. I became more aware of my route, and more mindful of different perspectives. Conversations with a mentor focused and intensified my learning. The combination of fragrant tea and supportive mentoring broadened my horizon and increased my wellbeing substantially.
Then, a year into the pandemic, I had a place on the Aurora programme. No walking across a campus was involved, but carefully infused tea and high-quality mentoring were very much part of my Aurora experience. My Aurora mentor carefully unpacked issues that seemed extremely complex and complicated to me. The most challenging problems began to feel like a gentle walk in the park on a warm, sunny day.
The Aurora programme covered a range of useful topics, with plenty of opportunities to engage in learning conversations with other women across the higher education sector. Mentoring helped me take that learning one step further, connecting the more general discussion on Aurora to my immediate context and future plans. My mentor asked perfectly timed probing questions that sparked reflection. The mentoring relationship was a safe space for reflection to unfold. Tea and tea cups also came up in conversations; they built affinity, resonance, connection.
Becoming an Aurora mentor
When I completed the Aurora programme, it made sense to continue the journey by stepping into a mentor role. Valuable learning from the Aurora experience was still fresh in my mind. As encouraged on the programme, I set out to pay that learning forward. I experimented with asking questions I had been asked as a mentee, though very much aware of my mentor’s advantage over me (some additional years of meaningful life experience I couldn’t quite acquire overnight). I hopscotched in my mentor’s footsteps every now and again, but very much aware that I would need to build my own path and repertoire.
With hindsight, having access to a programme like Advance HE’s Becoming an Aurora Mentor would have been immensely useful at that stage.
My first Aurora mentee was wise and patient. We made sense of the mentoring process together. I learnt as much if not more than she did. I read up on mentoring and coaching, attended WHEN webinars to get a broader picture of the situation of women in higher education, looked to Women-Space for inspiration, and reflected on learning conversations I’d had in a variety of contexts – at work as well as in other areas of my life.
I made a note of useful resources to share – books, memorable talks, podcasts, snippets of advice from social media. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The danger of a single story is likely to stay at the top of my resource list for a very long time, as will the inspirational quotes from former Adaptive Leadership facilitator, Jenny Garrett, and her #happenista journal.
A snippet of wisdom I draw on as a mentor was shared with me in a chance conversation: ‘You are your greatest resource.’ The academic in me still hopes to find a proper reference for this bit of wisdom. The woman in me knows that rather than worry about the reference I should spend time reflecting on how I can further build my strengths and leverage them for the benefit of others. I take ‘You are your greatest resource’ to mean that only you can make the right choices for yourself, but that making the right choices comes out of reflective conversations with the right people and learning is most impactful when it is mutual. I pass this on to my mentees.
Another valuable source of inspiration are reverse mentors – in my case, school students from a girls’ only school who join me each year for a week of work experience at the university. They help me see the campus through a different pair of eyes. We interview colleagues about their roles (new to the work experience participants but sometimes also new to me). We experiment with different ways of learning and have conversations over lunch about dreams, aspirations, university life, trees, healthy diets and origami.
It’s reassuring to witness hope and confidence about the future in younger generations of women. I learn a lot from them.
Continuing to learn and mentor
Being a mentor has made me aware of the substantial privilege associated with the mentor role: hearing other women articulate their experience and being part of the sense-making process. It has also made me aware of the great responsibility that comes with this: learning how to listen deeply, to create a space of mutual trust, and to ask good questions at the most appropriate times.
To make sure I can facilitate the sense-making experience as fully as possible for my future mentees, I signed up for Advance HE’s Becoming an Aurora Mentor training in Autumn 2022. I met other existing and aspiring mentors, with or without direct experience of the Aurora programme. The training brought together women in a variety of higher education institutions with a variety of academic and professional services roles (one of the aspects of Aurora I value greatly). It enabled rich learning conversations to occur. The workshop activities and the reflective journal homework we engaged with were an excellent context in which to think about and share how we enable women to take up leadership opportunities and to create change. The kind of change that benefits all colleagues and students in higher education, now and in the future.
Collaborative learning through mentoring that leads to meaningful action is definitely my cup of tea.
Lia Blaj-Ward (PhD, SFHEA) is Associate Professor (Teaching and Scholarship) at Nottingham Trent University and Chair (2022-2025) of the BALEAP Course Accreditation Scheme. Lia facilitates and writes about learning and development experiences for students and colleagues.
Becoming an Aurora mentor
Aurora participants are required to have a mentor to support and guide them throughout and after the end of the formal learning process. Find out more about our Becoming an Aurora Mentor workshops.