A Mentor's Reflections On The Power Of Being Present

This piece was originally published on Forbes.com Impact Voice as part of their Forbes@100 series, celebrating their 100th year. We have republished it below with permission. You can read the original blog here.

“I’m going to build my own door, Chris.”

I’ll never forget the day my mentee, Taquan, said those words to me. It was summer 2016; he was a recent high-school graduate, navigating with uncertainty a series of administrative hurdles standing between him and his goal of matriculating to college that fall. He had worked so hard to get accepted to college, balancing academic, extracurricular, and family obligations with maturity and determination. As the summer weeks passed, and he was still unsure how he would cover housing and tuition costs, the pressure was mounting. During these weeks, I witnessed how navigating those challenges was shaping and molding Taquan. Now a year later, with Taquan having successfully completed his first year of college, I realize that those weeks also held many lessons for me as a mentor.

Taquan and I were matched at the start of his freshman year of high school through iMentor, an organization that partners with public high schools in low-income communities, where a majority of students served will be first-generation college graduates. The organization builds mentoring relationships, which empower students to navigate high school, succeed in college, and achieve their ambitions. I signed up to become a mentor because iMentor’s mission resonated with me. I was a first-generation college graduate, and I understood from personal experience how important it was to have guidance and support from trusted adults.

It didn’t take long for Taquan and me to build a strong bond. Being a Brooklyn native and black man, I could relate to the many social pressures that he faced as he maneuvered his way from boyhood to manhood. We often talked about the need to have a growth mindset, which is to believe that things can get better and that, with hard work, one can improve and grow. Taquan often heard me say, “If you knock, and the door doesn’t open, build your own door.” It’s a phrase I heard growing up that stayed with me.

The proof that our mentoring relationship, the hundreds of conversations had over the past four years, and the countless hours spent together creating a plan, had made a difference, was when Taquan repeated my own words back to me. When he said that he would “build his own door”, he was affirming that he was undaunted and would be relentless in pursuit of dreams. His resolve paid off. Just days before students were to move on campus last summer, Taquan heard from his college that all his paperwork was completed and that he could matriculate. He would have rooming and tuition support.

iMentor Graduation
Chris with Taquan at Graduation

Too often mentoring young people is conflated with saving them. I have always known that was untrue, but as a mentor, I still had to fight the instinct to swoop in and attempt to solve Taquan’s problems for him. Over the course of our relationship, I came to see the power in simply listening, believing, and being present. Sometimes, that’s all we can do, and all that we must do. Young people possess incredible resilience and mental agility. They can solve their own problems, once they become aware of their own agency. When we listen to them, when we believe in them, and when we are present for them, we affirm that they are infinitely capable, valuable, and deserving of the fruits of their hard work.

It’s humbling to know that Taquan and my story is not unique. iMentor believes every student deserves a champion, and that’s why since 1999, they have matched more than 26,000 students with mentors. Right now, there are nearly 8,000 volunteer mentors working with students in more than 41 public high schools across the country. These mentors are committed champions, helping students successfully navigate the various stages of their college, career, and life journeys. Being Taquan’s mentor helped me recognize my deeper passion for serving youth and creating educational and career pathways, and I wanted to do more. So, I joined the iMentor team. Now I get to support hundreds of mentors and students, just like Taquan and me. Whenever a new mentor asks me for advice, I tell them all the same thing: Nothing you do as a mentor will be about you. It’s all about listening, believing, and being present.