Mentorship Matters

Our alumni and service members often tell us they are looking for professional mentors and advisors, so we created the Peer Advisor Network (PAN) to make it easy for them to find people with shared interests and skills from right within the alumni and service member community. In this post, we highlight the importance of mentorship through the experience of alum Kirsten Gerbatsch ’15.

A mentor is someone who you can learn from, who will support you, and who will challenge you to think deeply and reflectively about your path. Sometimes they will be your cheerleaders, but mentors “aren’t always your best friends,” says alum Kirsten Gerbatsch ‘15. They’re the people who care enough, “to give you the stink eye and say, ‘what’re you doing?’ sometimes.”


Kirsten works is a political organizer now and when I asked her how she’d found that path, she quickly explained how instrumental mentors from her FoodCorps days were, starting with her Site Supervisor, Diane Conners. Diane took it upon herself to help Kirsten find her passions and encouraged her to really invest in them. Seeing that Kirsten had a budding interest in food policy, Diane introduced Kirsten to the regional district staff of Debbie Stabenow (Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee) and invited her to participate in the Michigan Food Policy Council. This active mentorship challenged Kirsten to figure out what she really wanted to learn and get out of her service experience. After her service, Kirsten was the FoodCorps Montana Fellow and then dabbled in sustainability work in the for-profit sector. After giving that gig some time, she realized this wasn’t her “flavor of how to change the world,” and was left wondering what new direction she should pursue. So she turned to another mentor from her FoodCorps Fellowship, Crissie McMullan for advice.

Seeing that Kirsten was searching for a new path, Crissie did some matchmaking to set Kirsten up with a new mentor named Lauren. Lauren was the Director of the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee at the Montana Democratic Part and she encouraged to Kirsten to apply for their fellowship program. Throughout that experience, Lauren continued to be an influential guide for Kirsten – asking important questions that helped her find her passion and realize that she wanted to go back to school to pursue a degree in public policy, government, or law. So now she’s applying to school and laying down the bricks to make the pathway ahead of her. 

What’s the moral of the story? Through networking and initiative Kirsten found mentors who have been pivotal for her growth and have helped her find the path she’s currently pursuing.

What should you do to build relationships with mentors like Kirsten did? First off, do your research. Find out who is already in your broader network who you admire and share interests with and set up a time to talk. Then follow Kirsten’s advice:

  • Just go for it: “It takes initiative on the mentee’s part to make contact and build a relationship. Don’t let the intimidation factor get in the way of you reaching out.”
  • Be prepared: “Know what you want to get out of the relationship while also being open to the unexpected.”
  • Follow your path: “A good mentor will respect that your path is your own- mentees don’t have to follow directly in their mentor’s footsteps.”
  • It’s a two-way street: “Successful mentorship requires mutual respect.” You both have something to offer one another and your perspective is valued.
  • It can be organic: “You don’t always have to come out and say, ‘Excuse me, will you be my mentor?'”
  • Stay in touch: “I called my old site supervisor in crisis mode recently. She would not have given me the time of day if I hadn’t talked to her since 2013 when I finished my service term.”
  • Pay it forward: Kirsten has mentored peers, students when she was a service member and service members when she was a fellow. Just because you still have a lot to learn yourself doesn’t mean you can’t be a valuable resource to someone else.