On Mentorship, Asking for Help, and Gaining Perspective: A Letter to My Fellow SUNY Potsdam Peers

Dear Student at Potsdam,

Ask yourself: Who am I to write a public letter to the students of our school based on the one reason that I am graduating? I’m not by any means any more important than other graduating seniors, we all know that. I’m no valedictorian. Yeah, I’ve made my own mark on this campus, but so have a lot of students. Why is this letter important? Be critical of this, please.

Now that you’ve asked yourself all that, allow me to say that I’m not more important than anybody else — we were both right. But we live in a world of digital this-and-that, that when I feel like I have something important to say, the easiest way to share it is on the internet, hoping that someone will read it and be touched by it. Keep in mind, I’ve never gone viral before (though, I’ve tried many times) and I don’t think this is the time that I will. But I hope someone will get something out of this letter. 

Let me share with you two perspectives about my experiences in college.

Perspective 1: Freshman year I had an excessive amount of panic attacks. Sophomore year I struggled socially and had a hard time fitting in. Junior year I went to a psych hospital. Senior year I withdrew from Potsdam. Super senior year I went to the hospital again and my 1- year-8-month relationship ended. Now I’m probably going to graduate with a subpar GPA.

Perspective 2: Freshman year I got a 3.83 GPA my first semester and a 3.93 my second semester. Sophomore year I started living with my friend Geoff, who soon became my best friend. Junior year I moved into my first apartment and learned what it was like to be an independent adult, and I also completed my first internship in libraries. Senior year I began a healthy relationship, screened my first film, and also came back to Potsdam after I withdrew from the college to ‘finish what I started.’ Super senior year I learned what it meant to be in love. Now I’m graduating from college and also attending one of the best Library and Information Science graduate programs in the country to become a librarian.

My advice to all friends, acquaintances, and strangers reading this letter is: SUNY Potsdam (and college in general) is what you make it. SUNY Potsdam is not the best school, and sometimes, due to its inherent flaws, you may find yourself blaming the school for a lot of your problems. Now, I know my experiences are different than other people’s and I do have my own privilege as a white guy, but I think there’s a universal statement about SUNY Potsdam that is this: If you find yourself struggling at the college, there is a good chance it’s because you haven’t made anybody aware. What I’m saying is this: It’s okay to ask for help. The more you do it the right way — and the ‘right way to ask for help’ will be unique to you — the more you will find you don’t have to struggle alone.

SUNY Potsdam Academic Quad, February 2017

SUNY Potsdam Academic Quad, February 2017

One way to ask for help is by finding a mentor. I was lucky enough to have my own mentor, Jenica Rogers, the Director of Libraries. What I ask of all my friends, and to all students reading this, is that before it’s too late, you should find an ‘adult’ on this campus that you trust. This isn’t someone you share your deepest secrets too, or talk about what you did on a Friday night — it’s a faculty or staff member on this campus that you can look up to. Someone who can guide you in the right direction. Someone who can tell you when you’ve done a good job, but also someone who can respect you enough to teach you how to hold yourself accountable.

The next few sentences may sound unorthodox, but this is where I really need you to bear with me. The way I think we can fix all of SUNY Potsdam’s problems with diversity, inclusion and support is by pairing students with professors and other faculty members in a meaningful way. We are a small school for a reason, and something that every student likes about this school — even the ones that drop out or transfer — is the small size. Every student who walks into Potsdam comes to this school (I bet) for its size and the fact that Professors will know a student’s face if the student puts in a little effort to be seen. An advantage to having such a small school is that it wouldn’t be hard for every student to have a mentor. The reason I think mentoring would help diversity and inclusion efforts is because having the ability building healthy relationships between mentors and mentees builds natural community capacity.

Here’s the thing: the school can’t “make” this happen for the students. There can’t be a formal “mentoring program.” It’s too artificial and there would be too many policies and procedures that would go into it. It would probably fail. What the school needs is the drive of you, our students, to naturally seek out professors, faculty, and staff that you find interesting — on your own. This means not being afraid to go to office hours to pick their brains. This means being the engaging one in class. This means finding the professor that knows, studies, earned their degree in, and researches exactly what you’re interested in — and then making a concerted effort to talk to them one-on-one. This also means finding the professor you absolutely disagree with and speaking to them one-on-one — because they may even be a better mentor for you, believe it or not.

Not every ‘adult’ is willing to be a mentor for students because they might be busy. There’s also the possibility that they’re jaded: they’ve got tenure and they’ve been a Professor of their department for 25 years and they’ve seen too many students walk through the door to make a connection with anyone. Those faculty exist at SUNY Potsdam, too (sorry). That’s okay, though. You can’t help that. On the same note, not every student wants a mentor. And that’s just as okay, too.

You’re going to struggle. You’re going to have a tough time in college. You’ll fail a class. You’ll struggle socially. You’ll get fired from your Student Assistant job (actually, I really hope you don't). You’ll forget why you’re in college in the first place. Whatever the case may be, life is going to throw curve balls at you, and you’re going to want to give up. You may even…give up. But a mentor will be your stop sign. A mentor will be your yellow light telling you to slow down. A mentor will give you the opportunity to think things out loud with someone who holds you to a standard, someone who thinks you’re good enough and doesn’t want to see you fail. They’re holding interest in you. They won’t tell you what to do — and by no means are they going to do it for you. But they will be on the sidelines giving you guidance, support, and answering any questions you may have — and that is invaluable to have in college. They may even be there for a recommendation when the time is right.

As you finish reading this, you might be thinking of someone who is your mentor, or someone you want to be your mentor. Before you get excited, allow me to say this: you and your mentor have or will have a bond of trust, like I said in the beginning. I’m going to say this once, so listen up.

Treat the bond you have with your mentor as if you have one chance to keep that trust, because if you lose it, it will be devastating.

I started this letter with two different perspectives. Something my mentor did for me was encourage me to look at my life from different perspectives. She is a librarian, and a generalist, so her job is to be competent in several different fields. I am trained to look at the work I do from various perspectives, so I try to look at my life from various perspectives. The first perspective I gave you of my college career was bleak, sad, and a little discouraging. The second was uplifting and hopeful. As I graduate SUNY Potsdam, I am learning from the first perspective and giving thanks to the second perspective. I’ve learned from my mistakes at Potsdam and I am grateful for what I received at Potsdam — those are two mindsets my mentor instilled in me.

Think about this: What do you think a mentor can teach you? And most importantly, what do you need to learn from a mentor? Answer those two questions and then go connect with someone who sees something in you that you might not yet see in yourself.

This is all just what I believe. In no way are my words backed or supported by the administration of our school, but I want every student to know that building strong bonds with faculty and staff can make a huge difference in your undergraduate career at SUNY Potsdam. You’ll feel less alone.

Keep staying #PotsdamProud.

Sincerely,

Paul “Paavo” Halley

*You may have seen me do stand-up comedy before.