05/12/2014 08:30 am ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

Magical Mentors

It's once again graduation time on our nation's college and university campuses. Streams of notables, including President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have or will soon be trickling over ceremonial spaces to speak to the graduates -- about boundless opportunity.

Commencement speeches are, after all, about fresh beginnings. Some speakers may also talk about the challenges of higher education, the dangers lurking in the world, or about the prospect of living in changing climates that promise ongoing droughts, persistent heat waves, stronger blizzards, powerful tornadoes and destructive hurricanes. Most commencement speakers, though, are likely to discuss platitudinous themes that are designed for important rites of passage. The proud graduates, after all, are to be ceremonially transformed from students into adults. The pomp and circumstance, which is likely to translate into routinely uninspiring events, often avoid mention of important life issues that are central to how a graduate's life might develop.

Graduation always makes me think about importance of mentors in a person's life. Indeed, universities are trying to make mentoring more central to their missions. Universities have mentoring programs and mentoring training. At my university there is a worthy program in which senior scholars mentor their junior colleagues. There was a National Mentoring Summit held in January of this year. In October The University of New Mexico's Mentoring Institute will host its annual conference for which the keynote is titled: "The Dynamics of Coaching and Mentoring Relationships in the Workplace." The conference will also feature workshops on how to inspire student creativity, how to design effective mentoring programs, and how to engage the power of positive mentoring.

Survey data seem to underscore the power of positive mentoring. In the May 06 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson wrote:

If you believe the new 'Gallup-Purdue Index Report,' a study of 30,000 graduates of American colleges on issues of employment, job engagement, and well-being, it all comes down to old-fashioned values and human connectedness. One of the report's big takeaways: College graduates, whether they went to a hoity-toity private college or a midtier public, had double the chances of being engaged in their work and were three times as likely to be thriving in their well-being if they connected with a professor on the campus who stimulated them, cared about them, and encouraged their hopes and dreams.

College graduates had double the odds of being engaged at work and three times the odds of thriving in Gallup's five elements of well-being if they had had 'emotional support' -- professors who 'made me excited about learning,' 'cared about me as a person,' or 'encouraged my hopes and dreams.'

It's clear that mentoring skills are important, but I wonder if the answer to mentoring issues lies in institutes and programs? Many people may feel mentoring is beside the point. Given the privations of the corporate university, others may be too busy filling out forms or completing assessment exercises to mentor their students or junior colleagues. Some folks just might not have the "right stuff" to mentor successfully. Sometimes the most powerful mentor-mentee relationships "happen" as two wandering life paths unexpectedly cross.

My development as a scholar and human being devolves in large measure from lessons learned from two mentors I stumbled upon in West Africa -- the late filmmaker, Jean Rouch and the late Songhay healer-philosopher, Adamu Jenitongo. In both cases our master-apprentice relationship was not based upon a program or on coaching techniques, but on mutual respect and love. It was also a relationship premised upon the mutual acknowledgement that the mentor was all-knowing and that mentee knew little, if anything at all -- a difficult pill for this author and for most people to swallow.

My mentors never told me what to do. They taught by way of example. They led their lives and did their work, allowing me to watch them perform their magic-in-the-world. At the right moment, they took my hand and led me into their world, but they eventually pointed me in a direction and let go so I could find my own way. They expected nothing in return.

They also adhered to a West African theory of learning. When you are young, you listen and watch your elders. When they decide you have made progress in your specialization (weaving, fishing, farming, music, poetry, the arts, science or social science), they gently push you onto the path of mastery. In time, you put into practice what you have learned and your work helps to make the world a better place. By the time you become an elder, you confront your greatest obligation -- to pass your knowledge on to the next generation -- a true mentor, someone to guide you in a fruitful direction that leads to well-being-in-the world.

It takes hard work to engage the power of the mentor-mentee relationship. Even so, the existential rewards of such contact last a lifetime. If you are a graduate and haven't had a mentor, find one in your next stage of life. If you can be a mentor, take several mentees under your wing and encourage them to follow their dreams.

Mentorship is magical. It can be the difference that makes a difference. It can be the tonic that sweetens life-in-the-world.