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Plymouth Magazine recently sat down with the president and provost to discuss the role of mentorship at Plymouth State.
Plymouth Magazine: What makes the Plymouth State community conducive to mentoring?
President Birx: From the standpoint of faculty-student interaction it’s among the best I’ve ever seen. There’s really a sense of students getting to know faculty members here, and we don’t underestimate staff mentorship either. Many staff interact with students daily and the impact they have and mentoring activities they perform are outstanding.
Provost Dorff: The more I talk with alumni the more I learn how they love PSU and the faculty and staff who changed their lives. They share stories of deep and lasting ties.
Plymouth: What is PSUnite’s charge to our alumni who will provide all first-year students with mentors next year?
Birx: Our generous culture of giving back provides a lot of satisfaction when we pass on what we’ve learned. We want each student to have someone to talk to about sometimes challenging questions when there’s no one else to ask. This is particularly meaningful because we have such a high percentage of first-generation students.
Dorff: PSUnite challenges alumni to share through internships, networking, and mentoring. We can do it and transform our students’ experience in the process.
Plymouth: How does mentoring fit into the Integrated Clusters learning model?
Birx: It’s important because of the intersection and integration among what’s learned in the classroom, with how students engage outside the classroom with students of similar interests, and opportunities to engage alumni through career areas and other valuable experiences. Open Labs, internships, and mentorships open windows into worlds of interest for students.
Dorff: One thing that drew me to PSU was the intentionality. Team-based problem solving and other strategies sometimes happen elsewhere, but that’s because of efforts by individual students or professors. Here, it’s institution-wide. And mentoring is a critical component of that intentionality.
Plymouth: Who were your mentors?
Dorff: I was an undergraduate physics and math major at Colorado College when I wandered into Professor Fred Sondermann’s international relations class. He opened my eyes to what would become my major. Then when I was teaching at the U.S. Army War College, Gary Guertner, chairman of the Department of National Security and Strategy, pulled me aside. He asked me to stay on a second year and let me know that he thought I could be an excellent chair of the department one day soon. He believed in me and his confidence helped set me up for what in fact would be my future.
Birx: In high school, Dr. Frank Roberts had faith in me and encouraged my love of science, setting me on a science-oriented career path. When I was about to graduate as a (University of California) Berkeley undergraduate, science was taking a big hit and I was told that there weren’t any jobs. A career counselor encouraged me to think broadly, and I’ve often reflected back on that when combining a love of science and technology with a passion to create new opportunities and hopeful futures.
Provosts and presidents have also been tremendous sources of inspiration. Jay Gogue, president emeritus of Auburn University, was the source of so many insights, as was Bill Conroy and Renu Khator. (President Birx’s earlier postings include both New Mexico State University (NMSU) and the University of Houston. Gogue previously served as president of both institutions; Conroy was NMSU provost and later president; and Khator is currently chancellor, University of Houston System, and president, University of Houston.)
I took a six-month job in industry while pursuing a PhD in physics at University of California, Santa Barbara. But industry mentors encouraged me to stay and it gave me a perspective into the opportunities and needs outside academia that I would never have had otherwise
Plymouth: Do good mentors share universal qualities?
Birx: Really the most important qualities are active listening and a willingness to share experiences. Beyond that, it is the desire to engage and making the time available to do it meaningfully.
Dorff: Yes, along with the ability to understand others. My mentors probably understood me better than I did myself at the time, and all were outstanding teachers. ■
Jack Roberts ’18 photo
Plymouth Magazine is now online!