I am grateful to have had the opportunity to develop as an individual alongside life-changing mentors. These people believed in me. They believed in my ideas. The skills, knowledge, and insights I learned from them have empowered me to carve out a place for myself in the economy.
Mentors can change your life
It started with the professor who taught the immersive course I enrolled in during the summer of 2009. This was a turning point in my life. I learned how to analyze complex social problems using new media composition and investigative research. After the course ended, I was granted permission to continue working in the lab. I was there nearly eight hours everyday. This allowed me to continue my education and skill development as I worked underneath three brilliant artists. These three artists were the studio mentors of the lab. The quality of my work increased rapidly because of Jessica, Jacob, and James. Within eight months I received my first contract to produce a documentary for the School of Social Work.
I started with no future, and within a few months I was developing skills to create a job for myself.
I continued working with the professor in some capacity for nearly three years. The most important thing I learned during this time came from the organic learning environment he created for me. Stepping back from the traditional role of “teacher”, he empowered me to curiously discover things on my own. He showed me that I am worthy enough to create things that have value. He did not tell me what to memorize in order to pass a test. He taught me how to work backwards in order to achieve a goal that’s far off in the distance. This was unlike any learning experience I had been exposed to. I remember asking him what occupation or line of work I should pursue. He said, “Social Entrepreneurship“.
At the time, I was getting frustrated with the university because I had proposed a number of new projects that would transform the way students were being prepared for the economy. One of my proposals was going to create a path to employment for 800 high school students from the Rutgers Future Scholars Program while also saving the university a million dollars over the course of five years. I recognized the need for this innovation because I was teaching a class with a group of 30 students one summer, and they were confiding in me about their hesitation of pursuing college because they don’t believe they will have employment opportunities – their parents were telling them they had to work after high school. The administrators don’t hear these things because they are not on the front lines with the students. Acanomics instructs all stakeholders to be on the same playing field at all times. That means administrators must develop communication systems that connect them with the student feedback. I showed the proposal to the Vice President of Enrollment and he was impressed. He read it in front of me and said, “Hm. This is a good idea.” He directed me to the VP of Media Relations. Upon arriving to my meeting with her I was greeted with abrupt negativity as she told me how bad my idea was. I now understand it was because she was threatened by the level of disruption, but at the time I was frustrated and ready to give up on trying to help my peers.
I was proud of that proposal.
I went home that evening and Googled the phrase “social entrepreneurship rutgers university”. This was about three or four years ago so there was not much information about social entrepreneurship anywhere. I did, however, find a link to the Dean of the Honors Program. His bio said he “works regularly with social action, global rights, and environmental and activist groups. He is also developing teaching in social entrepreneurship: the crossover of business and social justice initiatives.”
His email address was listed on the website so I sent him an email and hoped for the best. I found the original email I sent in my inbox from May 4th, 2011.
I was desperately searching for someone who would listen. You can probably tell by reading my extensively long run-on sentence in the first paragraph 🙂
Within 24 hours, I received a response. We scheduled our first meeting.
At our meeting, I went through my usual rundown of events starting from when I met Dr. Miller in 2009. As my stories approached the present day I started to get upset. I mentioned to you earlier my level of frustration from being told my innovations were not a good idea. I had spent a solid two years immersed in the higher education landscape. I contributed so much to the learning experiences of hundreds of students. I selflessly helped any person who needed it. It made sense that now I was beginning to see new opportunities in the outdated models of the university.
Once I started telling the dean about the most recent proposal I had submitted I got so emotional that I broke down in tears. I was upset because no matter what I did, or how far I climbed on my own, as soon as I would reach a point where I was ready for something bigger there was always a tenured professor or admin who was there to put me back down in my place.
I just wanted to be apart of the learning process so I could share the tools and insights I was accumulating with more students. I did not make a conscious choice to want to be so hyper-focused on helping others. It just kind of happened on its own. I refer to this trait as being connected with my humanity. I credit this connection to the immersive training I went through with Dr. Miller and Award Winning Filmmaker, Bill Gentile, who trained me in the technical aspect of videography.
Dean Matsuda could see the passion in me. I just wanted to be involved. I had spent the previous two years within the walls of the university building a life and career for myself from scratch. I was running workshops with over 10 different departments, consulting on numerous projects, building websites, and producing videos on a regular basis. I was earning enough to survive, but I was ready to add more value with much more impactful projects.
I was looking for someone at the university to give me chance to do more than just a video, or two class sessions on blogging or social media.
He did just that. He gave me an opportunity by letting me give a 10 minute presentation during the upcoming honors seminar to promote a series of workshops separate from regular class time that I would host with the Dean. I called the workshops “Design Your Own Future”.
Being that the workshops were not a requirement for the students, I believe Dean said he was hoping to use the level of student participation as a gauge to measure whether his students really did want to learn the things I was hoping to offer them.
Since I had told Dean about Dr. Miller’s impact on my life during our time working together the last few years, he managed to get Dr. Miller to open up the honors seminar with his own presentation. It was an incredible experience to sit in the audience, watch Dr. Miller’s presentation, and then stand up from my seat to walk up on the same stage to present to the same crowd of students. I practiced for my presentation for at least 7 or 8 days prior to the performance. I memorized every word I wanted to say. I did not use any slides because I wanted to be active and moving around and engage the audience. I had one over arching theme I was trying to impress upon them, and it was that they were honors students destined to do great things in this world.
As I finished the presentation I was given delightful applause and kind remarks from people walking up to me. This was the only time I had ever performed for an audience like that. I immediately knew that it was something that was going to become a big part of my future. Unfortunately, that was the first and last time I was on stage. Telling you this story in such detail lit the candle. I definitely need to do that again. Soon.
About 15 students followed up with me after class letting me know they were definitely in for the workshops. I didn’t have much time to go into depth at the workshops, so I mostly used the time to let the students ask me questions. They were all working on their companies and trying to figure out how to use the internet and SEO and I could see the passion in their eyes – the same passion I have.
I had proven myself capable to provide value to his students. The Dean introduced me to a number of brilliant individuals. Some were about to graduate at the top of their class, and others were graduates working on groundbreaking projects. The following semester, the Dean offered me an incredible opportunity to work alongside him during a full 16-week semester. The course was based in social entrepreneurship and had about 15 honors students who all had the passion and/or ideas for a social business they wanted to start.
Three or four years later, I asked one of the honors students who I am in touch with if he could put together a simple testimonial talking about his experience working with me. Here is what Josh, cofounder of Tag said:
I didn’t realize it at the time, but as I learned through my mentorship experiences with Dr. Miller and Dean Matsuda I immediately became a sharing mechanism to let others benefit from what I was learning. I did not realize it until now that I was actually mentoring a number of students in a similar fashion to how I was being mentored.
In either case, in terms of mentoring and being mentored, they both are responsible for a great deal of the skills, knowledge, and incite that have led me to build Action Horizon Institute. The benefit of attending Action Horizon Institute comes from what I learned with Dr. Miller and from my time working with Dean Matsuda.
Action Horizon Institute teaches students:
- how to develop relationships with stakeholders of your local community
- how to use new media to understand the complexity of a social problem
- how to identify unmet needs in your local community
- how to create value to serve those needs
- how to attach a revenue model to sustain the value creation and influence measurable impact
My conclusion? Mentors should be a required aspect of the education experience for every student. I never had mentors until this point. Until I had mentors my life was on the fast track to nowheresville. Once I linked up with mentors, as well as developed the proper skills for the labor market, my entire life changed.
To my mentors, I say thank you. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for showing me how to believe in myself.