Confessions of a First-Year Mentor

By: Jaimie Hwang


There was a time in my life when I didn’t realize how lucky I was. Growing up in a wealthy suburb meant being shielded from certain realities. Gossip at my high school tended to revolve around the newest convertibles in the senior lot, the venue of the biggest Sweet 16 or who’d win Best Dressed. There was always someone trendier, someone more privileged. I’d always excelled at academics. Combined with a general curiosity about the world, I found opportunities to travel: conferences, camps, internships, and summer programs.  Leaving the Bellevue bubble exposed me to experiences and backgrounds I’d only read about.

By college, my best friends couldn’t have been more different. One of my roommates grew up having a live-in chef, tutors for every AP subject, and high-achieving older siblings. My other roommate was the oldest of four, working 40-hour weeks on top of a full course load, and had barely known she needed to take the SAT when college application time rolled around. The stark difference in their upbringing opened my eyes. Yet, we’d all made it into the same school?

Motivation. For some of us, it was engrained early on. Sometimes our families or teachers impress it upon us; for some people, so much so, that they grow deathly afraid of failure. For my roommate, it was a means of escape – if she didn’t study hard enough, she feared she’d never leave her tiny, insular town. But I knew from personal experience that the best kind of motivation is sparked by inspiration.

The first time I met my mentee, Ronald, he had a cream cheese mustache: residue from his morning bagel. And when I pointed it out, and he just grinned with only a faint trace of embarrassment, I knew we’d get along. My co-mentor, Alex Grant, had been mentoring Ronald for a year already, yet it didn’t feel strange joining the already-close duo.

Sometimes I wonder what motivates the Minds Matter mentees to come to session each week.  Every Saturday morning, when I see my mentee hauling his giant duffel bag of SAT books, I am moved. Nobody is dropping him off or picking him up or making him show up. Nobody forces him to complete his reading assignments, create his flashcards or revise his summer camp essays.  When I think about my parents taking me to music lessons or dropping me off at club tennis practice for years— and all the times I didn’t feel like going — I can’t help but feel ashamed of the younger me. Ronald holds himself accountable, and Alex and I are so proud of him.  Although I can’t say for sure, I can only hope that Minds Matter students come each week because they feel empowered (unless it’s the yogurt selection).

Just the other day, Ronald and I went to get ice cream after session. I was stunned by how thoughtful he’d become. When I first started working with him almost a year ago, Ronald spent numerous hours a week browsing the Internet and hanging out with friends at the mall. But over the past several months, I started hearing less about his mall mischief. Over dripping ice-cream cones, he sincerely opened up about potential career aspirations and all the new clubs at school he plans to join.

So what did I learn? Mentoring is easy. I’m no expert on the subject, but for all the fun that comes with brainstorming Ronald’s English creative story assignments, thinking up inventive ways to memorize SAT vocabulary, to watching his class’ Harlem Shake on YouTube, it never feels like work!

Last year through Minds Matter, Ronald attended the University of Colorado’s summer program. After summer ended, Ronald told Alex and me about his first experience, ever, riding a roller coaster (a social activity sponsored by the summer program). Even though he was terrified of heights, he said he forced himself to go on every major roller coaster at Six Flags since he’d never been on one before. He seizes opportunities. My mentee's eagerness to try new things, his desire to meet new people, and his commitment to showing up every Saturday willing to grow, inspire me. And every moment that I get to spend with him makes me realize just how lucky I am.