12/30/2011 11:20 am ET Updated Feb 29, 2012

Mentorship & Motivation

A teacher of mine from high school recently contacted me, among other students, to come in at some point this semester to talk to her students. I was immediately down, without really knowing what I was going to talk about. But besides that minor point, I was excited to come in.

Despite the fact that it was one of my seven full days home between school and Sudan, I more than owed it to Ms. Staffa. Besides being a generally incredible teacher who perennially drove herself crazy worrying about her students, she served as an invaluable mentor to a particularly hard-headed student. Staffa practically dragged me onto the debate team, which I found that I loved, and constantly pushed me to try harder even when my grades were fine.

Coming from a Sudanese family, college was always a given. My parents didn't pack everything up and leave their country for anything less than that for their kids. But being the eldest, I was the first to go through the application process, which gets more and more complicated every year. Transcripts and recommendations and volunteering and SATs (or is it ACTs?) and GPAs -- it was all pretty overwhelming. When it came time to apply to colleges, Staffa got me thinking about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to do it before even looking at an application. She helped me set goals and reach them. I wouldn't be on the same path I am now without her guidance and mentorship.

That ended up being a fair amount of what I talked about during her Motivation Monday. Initially, I felt uncomfortable being up there, repeating the story of my life from high school onward to five classes of 11th graders. After all, it was only five years ago that I was in their same seats (as Ms. Staffa said, some of the drawings on those desks may be my handicraft).

I usually don't like thinking of myself as a role model. At first glance it seems like voluntarily taking on more responsibility. But as my mom likes to remind me whenever I'm home, being a role model isn't even close to optional. The part that's up to us is deciding what example to set. Whether I like it or not my younger brothers, my friends' siblings, and Sudanese-American kids I hardly even know (but whose parents use my name to put stupid pressures on them to get into 'good' colleges) take note of what I do, good and bad.

Like many things, my views on mentorship have changed over the years. I consider it a privilege rather than a burden. At the same time, I've found that the traditional mentee-mentor relationship has its drawbacks. As someone who is still young and dumb and blindly feeling his way through life, I find it difficult to tell someone what they should do. I much prefer to ask questions to help someone probe through their own feelings and goals -- once those are out in the open, it's easier for them to figure it out themselves. However, I know plenty of kids who are the first in their families to go to college in the US and I consider it a duty to do whatever I can to improve their chances of getting in. Also, I've made plenty of stupid mistakes during my college career, and whatever I can do to smooth anyone's four years is generally an ego-less endeavor.

I still don't like calling myself a mentor and I don't quite know how my unofficial mentees would feel about the titular aspect of it all. As I said earlier, I still consider myself too young, too dumb, and too adventurous to be a golden source of information. But even if my advice isn't perfect, I'm slowly realizing that I do have occasional nuggets of wisdom that may benefit somebody. All that Staffa ever asked of me in exchange for her help was that I pay it forward, so I'm trying to do that regardless of how uncomfortable it can be.

For those mature enough to recognize how much they have to gain from a mentor, there is an amazing program founded by a friend and fellow Stanford student, Michael Tubbs. The Phoenix Scholars program was created when Tubbs, realized that he wouldn't have been able to get into Stanford without the guidance provided by a mentor. He recognized that this help in preparing college essays, finding scholarships, and providing self-confidence was often something students in low socioeconomic areas did not have access to, no matter how successful they were academically. Now, with the help of a team of undergraduate staff and mentors, Phoenix Scholars is sending low-income and first-generation students to college every year.

The program is competing in the Pepsi Refresh Everything Challenge (which goes on until December 30th) to win money to expand and continue their efforts. Last year, they had a 100% acceptance rate with zero funding. Imagine what they could do with the thousands they stand to win with your vote. So whether you find a mentee, donate to one of the many programs that mentor others, or spend a few seconds to vote up Phoenix Scholars, I strongly encourage you to think about becoming involved with someone who may need you. Nobody accomplishes what they accomplish without help. Pay it forward.