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Now Is the Time to Thank Your Teachers and Mentors

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Commencements have come and gone and the class of 2014 has emerged into the working world. Many new graduates are reflecting on the professors (and the teachers before them) who have shaped their careers, studies and personalities. Accordingly, I would like to acknowledge some of the people who helped me grow into the person I am today. Mentorship is critical to students' success in the classroom and their professional growth as they progress through their careers.

My mentors were not always educators in the traditional sense and they did not always come from places that I expected. Some of this is a product of my family and upbringing: 16 years of education at Catholic schools, including eight at institutions founded by Jesuits. This experience has shaped me tremendously, both because of what I was taught and because my education emphasized that action speaks louder than words. My religious faith has allowed me to deal with many crises and problems.

In college, by chance, I got a job working for the chaplain at Le Moyne College, Fr. Dan Mulhauser. While most of my time was spent on routine tasks, such as cleaning up after Mass, Dan often challenged me to stretch my limits. One afternoon, our security guard slipped and fell, dislocating his knee and breaking his leg. I expected to be a bystander, but Dan suggested that I accompany the guard to the hospital. Dan's devotion to the man was inspiring. Upon reflection, I realized that Dan's efforts helped the guard remain calm despite his pain. The lesson I learned was that helping others is of the utmost importance and that you must always be prepared, as you never know when you may be placed in an extreme situation.

Dan was transferred to Micronesia at the end of my freshman year. His replacement was a young Jesuit from Philadelphia: Fr. Frank Nash. Though I'm not sure exactly what brought Frank and me together, he saw something in me that I had not yet discovered. He was brilliant, an excellent listener and a wise friend. He supported me in many ways, even lending me his car once so I could take a friend's sister to a dance. Another time, I remember him knocking on my door at midnight asking for help jump-starting his car's dead battery (I had my parents' truck that week). He treated me as an adult and expected me to act accordingly -- and over time, I did.

On many occasions, I watched Frank interact with people. It was apparent he cared for everyone, emphasizing their interests over his, while at the same time providing a sounding board and willing ear. At one point, he suggested that I would be a good "company man," but I went off to my graduate fellowship instead. Frank's ministering taught me a fundamental lesson: To help others, you make yourself vulnerable. By caring, you risk rejection. By trusting, you risk being betrayed. But you are only authentic when you display your character to others. Some people display facades designed to display something positive when they seek only to honor themselves. When they act to betray or punish, they may leverage power to achieve their way. But in the end, people will see through such action as a self-serving effort. Working with Dan and Frank taught me how a man should act.

At the University of Illinois, my graduate school advisor, Peter Feuille, was a strongly regarded young scholar who arrived at the university at the same time I did. He was a hard worker with an incredibly competitive spirit. His guidance and encouragement helped me to build my academic skills and reputation. His competitive spirit and wit were on display many years later when I received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Illinois. Because he was unable to attend the event, Peter asked to have a letter to me read at the ceremony -- one in which he provided me with praise and encouragement while recounting how he kicked my butt in a 10k run during a conference at Arden House in New York in 1982. It is true that he kicked my butt that day, but I know his true purpose in sharing this anecdote was to send me this message: Don't become complacent after any award. From Pete, I learned to work hard and to persist when things don't go as planned.

I also learned volumes from too many others to list, including Nels Nelson, Fr. William Bosch and Martin Wagner. I mention these men because I admire them. Nels, my primary undergraduate professor and advisor, pressed me to develop my expertise. William was a live-in advisor to me and about 20 other undergraduate men at an off-campus house. He made a great pizza, enjoyed practical jokes, and was always a voice of reason. He guided me in the right direction even though he did not realize he was doing so. Martin was a fabulous professor in graduate school. He was incredible -- a former Rhodes Scholar, an active arbitrator and a strong teacher; he was such an expert that students were afraid he'd ask a question and press for an answer. Beneath his high expectations and sometimes tough countenance was a wonderful, caring man -- a truth revealed to me in time.

As I reflected on my important mentors, I asked myself why all the teachers listed above were men. The answer is because a large proportion of my teachers were men. Several women also contributed to my development and success. Mary Sue Coleman, who appointed me University Ombudsperson during her tenure as president of the University of Iowa, demonstrated the value of authenticity. I was able to become an effective ombudsperson only because of what I learned from Maile Sagen. Maile, my co-ombudsperson, taught me to listen closely, get all sides of a story, be strong and expect the unexpected. She helped me understand how to deal with difficult, frustrating and disappointing matters with poise.

In many ways, the lessons from these teachers are linked fundamentally. Each was a hard worker and expected as much from me. Each expected me to provide a full, accurate and critical answer, paper or presentation. They forced me to test my limits and be more than I thought possible. More than anything, they helped me live a point made famous by Rudyard Kipling in his poem, If: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same..."

My mentors taught me that what we see as a success or a failure is really a fleeting moment in time. Your character reflects something more fundamental and important. You must be comfortable in your skin to make a difference in your world. I hope to inspire others in the way my mentors inspired me. I offer my most sincere appreciation to the individuals named and those I omitted who helped me to become the person I am, and I invite readers to thank their teachers and mentors, too.