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Charlie Nelms, Ed.D. Headshot

Mentoring Matters

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I am often asked by young, aspiring university administrators to what do I owe my success as a 40-year leader in higher education, including three times as a university chancellor. My reply is always fourfold. First, I made sure that I was prepared for leadership by investing in my own personal and professional development. I did not wait for any of the universities with which I was affiliated to underwrite my graduate studies, travel or other professional activities. When I attended professional meetings, I was an active participant rather than one of several hundred in the audience.. Second, I was always prepared to consider a job change as long as the position for which I was a candidate provided an opportunity to make a difference and to grow personally and professionally. Third, I never accepted a position because of the salary or job title. Over time, I felt that I would be appropriately compensated for my work, and I was. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, I always had the benefit of excellent mentors.

As I reflect on my life and career, my earliest recollection of mentors is of two teachers at my little rural school in the Arkansas Delta. Specifically, they included the Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Viola McNeil, and the Vocational Agriculture teacher, Mr. Milton Mozelle. These two individuals invested countless hours, along with their personal financial resources, in my fellow students and me to ensure that we were prepared to compete in 4-H Club events, county fair activities and regional forensic competitions, among other activities. They convinced us that college was within reach despite the poverty that enveloped us or the white supremacy political system determined to suppress opportunities for blacks. I still remember the quote by Abraham Lincoln that my Agriculture teacher penned in my little book of autographs when I graduated from high school, "I will study and prepare myself and one day my chance will come". I followed that advice and "my day" did indeed come.

During my second year of college, I informed the president of my alma mater, Arkansas A.M. & N. College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, that I wanted to be the president of a Black college. His reply was enthusiastic and unequivocal. He said, "Boy, you can do it." Shortly thereafter, he became my college mentor and we spent many hours over an ensuing twenty-year period discussing the state of black higher education and what its leaders could and should do to advance educational opportunities for historically disenfranchised people. His voice, encouragement and advice were never far from my ears or consciousness during my leadership journey. The best advice that he ever gave me was to leave the South for graduate school in the late 1960s. I followed that advice and it made a world of difference.

As I moved through my career, I had the support of numerous mentors who looked like me, as well as those who did not. Some were female, others were foreign-born, while some were white and some were gay. But, they all had one thing in common: they cared about me. They showed their support by advocating for me when I was nowhere in sight. They told me what I needed to hear even when I didn't want to hear it. They never expected any pay back; only that I pass along to others the kindness and support shown to me. For more than forty years, I have sought to repay those who invested in me by investing in others. This fall, my spouse and I are providing scholarships to more than a dozen undergraduate students at four different universities that we have had the privilege of serving. And, next month we will travel to the inauguration of my fifteenth protégé to become a college president.

The moral of this story is simple: we are all standing on the shoulders of those who believed in us long before we believed in ourselves. They were mentors long before the term gained the recognition that it has today.