What I learned about mentorship as a first-gen student

Anna Bao
5 min readMar 19, 2021

The power of mentorship

Studies have shown that mentorship leads to greater career success. As a result, 71% of Fortune 500 companies offer mentoring programs to entice higher engagement and retention from their employees. Yet, a survey published in 2019 suggested that 76% of 3000 surveyed professionals think mentors are important, 56% ever had one, and only 37% currently have one. One might wonder what prompted the gap between the different stages of obtaining that relationship. Digging a little bit more into the data, 61% of participants say their relationship developed naturally. Is the more important question then, how can you foster that relationship naturally? I’d like to walk you through my personal journey of seeking what I thought was mentorship, converting a school-sponsored mentor to a personal mentor, and giving back as a mentor myself.

Mentorship is not Q+A

An immigrant to America at eight years old and the first person in my family to attend formal schooling, I grew up with so many unanswered questions about everything from acceptable lunches to bring to school to picking out a major in college. As soon as I graduated from English as a second language, I began to ask my peers these questions. When they didn’t know, I sought advice from my teachers and counselors in school. When I had exhausted their knowledge, I discovered the internet, and a whole new Q+A system materialized. In true archaic dial-up fashion, I typed my questions in search engines, and opened all the links on the first page of results, pouring myself into reading these sites. I’d conclude their common themes to make the most informed decision in response to my question (a practice I still follow today).

However, I realized that there was a limit to all these efforts, as the answers I found on Google were not tailored towards my personal development. The answers lacked context about who I was and what I was considering. This is when I first heard about mentoring and its benefits.

Following a playbook (that I Googled), I asked a few individuals — those senior to me at school but coming from a similar background — to be my formal mentors and scheduled recurring sessions. Drawing from my previous experiences, I went into these meetings with question after question about fitting in, as well as balancing duty and what I desired. I hoped that somehow, magically, by the end of these sessions, these mentors would tell me exactly what I needed to do. And, as maybe I should’ve expected, they didn’t; I came away from that experience wondering if I’d ever find the right guidance.

Like any relationship, mentoring starts with trust that stems from commonality

Sophomore year of college, I participated in an externship program that allowed me to shadow an alumna, Pam, for three weeks. It was a blast. Not only was I immersed in Pam’s daily life as a CEO of a public agritech company, I flew around the country with her, attending conferences and meetings with customers. At the end of three weeks, I felt like a different person, inspired by everything I was seeing through her eyes. I even promptly added business as a minor at the start of the new semester.

Pam and I bonded over several commonalities. Besides coming from the same university and forming lasting memories of the time we spent together, we discovered through conversations that we’re both women who are: willing to fight against what we’re told to do, curious about the world, and hoping to tackle problems at hand in very similar ways.

Despite the decades of age difference, the trust that came from the commonalities mentioned allowed us to chat just about anything. My favorite memories are over a delicious spread of food and wine, where there was never the fear of being judged, despite our different experiences.

Mentorship requires maintenance, you gotta hit it when the iron is hot

For the remainder of my three years left of college, Pam and I didn’t stop seeing each other. She would come over to Cornell every so often for her meetings and always invited me to join her. When my parents weren’t able to make it to a part of my graduation ceremony, Pam was there shouting my name as I walked down the aisle. We enjoyed being in each other’s presence, as she saw herself in me and, I assume, knew the impact she was making on my formative years. In the same way, I was learning to see the same potential she saw in me, so that I could support future mentees. I’ve already utilized the insights and confidence we collectively gained.

Into my young professional years, we keep each other up to date on major things happening in our lives, and meet up in different cities. The trust, genuinity, and momentum in our relationship transformed what should have been a one-time relationship into a deep, personal mentorship. Last September, I moved to San Francisco and we now live two hours away from each other.

Complete the cycle of mentorship and multiply its effects

A big piece of mentorship is giving back. One has to experience it in order to share it. Pam was a recipient of mentorship herself and fostered multiple mentorships prior to me. And I, in return, joined Mind Matters Boston with the same intent. Along with my co-mentor, we were paired with a mentee who is just absolutely amazing, to the point where I was personally learning from her and her attitude each time we connected. Just like when I was a mentee to Pam early on, my mentee doesn’t yet see the brilliance in herself, and I see how her lack of confidence limits her perception of what she could become or do.

That said, I couldn’t be more grateful and proud to be with her at this critical time, and to support her with my insights. By thoroughly exploring her options, acknowledging her skill sets, and prioritizing what matters to her personally, I focus on encouraging her to make the most informed decision about choosing and entering the right college for her.

Mentorship is rewarding, for the mentors and for the mentee. I can’t say for certain why only 37% of that sample size currently have a mentor, but I hope my story paints a clearer picture of good mentorship and nurturing that relationship. Perhaps, I hope this might even convince you to look for one.

*This story is first published on Propel Community. If you’re interested in joining a group of peers and mentors who coach each other, get in touch!



Anna Bao

Not the best writer, but have a story to tell. Currently building Kleido.co, a career exploration platform for high school students.