Annie's Journey to Mentorship and OWHE Leadership

My journey toward OWHE board membership can be traced all the way back to senior year of high school. As a young, driven, and often overwhelmed high school student, I found myself in the high school counselor’s office often. In the pursuit of wisdom, I sat with my counselor day after day asking questions about school, relationships, and my future. We talked about everything from boyfriends to body image and college application to career considerations. Her mentorship left me with a deep desire to share the goodness of mentorship with others. I wanted everyone to experience the incredible support I had received.

Fast forward to college graduation. My first job as a domestic violence advocate opened my eyes to the violence and injustice experienced by one in three women in their lifetime. The role of advocate is defined as one who supports or recommends a particular cause or policy. As I continued in this work, the definition of advocate became two-fold: one who supports a cause and one who supports others in their pursuits regarding the cause. It became important for me to know when to advocate on someone’s behalf and when to support someone in advocating for themselves. This shift in thinking changed the way I viewed counseling, support, and mentorship.

Jumping ahead to the OWHE conference in January 2017, my role had changed again. Working in an academic resource center, I often got an inside look at the workings of the college systems, including early alerts, parent concerns, and students struggling academically. I noticed a theme in these students’ situations: many were isolated or unsure how to access resources. Out of fear, confusion, or embarrassment, many students chose to stay hidden instead of reaching out for help. I wondered how our services and programs could cause a change in the campus culture that lead to resource use being seen as good or normal. How could we reduce the stigma around academic and mental health struggles? Could we reach a state of being where students openly discussed their struggles along with triumphs at the lunch table, in the classroom, and in the dorms?

At the OWHE conference, my life experiences began to come together into a big, spinning ball of flurried ideas and jumbled objectives. I knew that I wanted to make a difference for our students, and I wanted to create programs that made a difference for students, but I wasn’t sure how. And then I realized that it all starts with us – the staff, faculty, and administrators in higher education. I wanted to equip women in higher education with a network of supportive colleagues and friends that would enhance their knowledge and energy. I wanted to take a step back from the hands-on work that I do with students and begin to pour into the people that do this work every day. My hope is that the mentorship program provides a space for women to connect, grow together, learn from each other, and lift each other up as we serve students and reach our own professional goals.

The OWHE Mentorship Program has been built on the values of connection, growth, and leading change. This year, I’m excited to continue to develop the program by adding my own flavor to the mix. As I prepare for the mentorship program kick-off event this next January, I find myself reflecting on a few key thoughts from my journey.

Mentors come in many shapes and sizes

My first official mentor was my high school counselor, but I had many casual mentors before then. A mentor does not need to hold an official title to be worthy of a mentor relationship. Mentor relationships can also vary in length; some serve the purpose of a few conversations, while others grow into close friendships over time. Some mentors serve as your cheerleader, confidant, wise advisor, or thought provoker. Mentors can be one-sided or mutually serving. I even consider some of my favorite authors and podcast hosts to be sources of mentorship. It can be helpful to clarify what your personal definition of ‘mentorship’ is and then consider what you’re hoping to get out of, and pour into, a mentorship relationship.

Mentorship isn’t always about getting an answer

My first mentor was the best at asking great questions. For those who haven’t read the book “Change Your Questions, Change Your Life” by Marilee Adams, please add it to your must-read list. I used to approach mentorship hoping that the other person would give me the answers to life’s hardest questions. When my mentor started asking me questions and I had to come up with answers myself, it was hard. But then I gained the confidence and skills of how to seek out answers myself. This was one of the most powerful tools my mentor gave me. This is also a powerful tool we get to offer to students when we ask them meaningful questions.

Anyone can be a mentor

We all have insights, experiences, and support to offer to each other. The most experienced and the most novice professionals might find that the other has something that they’re looking for, whether it’s expertise in a specific area or an experience with a topic you’re interested in. Cross-discipline mentors can open our worldview and enhance our ability to understand students and education from a new viewpoint. Those who entered the world of higher education from a different field bring creativity and new perspectives to the work we do. Know that your unique life experiences and skills are something that you bring to any mentor relationship.

Mentorship should enhance your life, not feel like a burden

I find myself sometimes saying yes to so many projects and people without taking a deep breath and deciding which activities might not serve me at that time. This may be a perfect time in your life to reach out to new mentor, or serve as a mentor to others. You may have an hour per week available, or you may decide to get in touch with your mentor once per month. Maybe your schedule is pretty hectic right now and adding one more thing to your plate isn’t going to enhance your life very much. Mentorship can serve a wonderful purpose when done in a way that serves your time, your energy level, and your needs in this current life season. Consider the role you’d like mentorship to play in this season of your life.

Through mentorship and networking, women across Oregon can become familiar with each other’s’ program approaches, share ideas about student development, attend events and conferences together, and become a more united front for the future generation. We need to know that we are not alone in our cubicle or office; we are truly stronger together.

Interested in getting involved in the OWHE Mentorship Program? Sign up here!


Annie Popoff, Director of Engagement

Oregon Women in Higher Education

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