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The Importance of Mentoring

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tonya T. Neaves 
October 16, 2015

A year has passed since I earned my doctorate. It had been seven long years of working full time while attending school part-time at Mississippi State University. Throughout that time, I saw several cohorts cross the finish line before me with a mixture of envy and apprehension. When it was finally my turn, I walked across stage with pure excitement and railing anxiety. It is not an everyday occurrence to hear your name called as the very first candidate among your peers to join the junior ranks of so many of your professors.

Was I “special” to be the first across the stage? No, it was a matter of needy luck. I had two professors co-hood me. The graduation coordinators thought it would be less complicated if I led that portion of the line. At this institution, your major professor and the college dean hood you. However, I was insistent that both my major professor and research supervisor share in my rite of passage. These two individuals, whom I admire and respect so much, are Drs. P. Edward French, professor of public policy and administration and director of the Stennis Institute of Government, and Dr. Arthur G. Cosby, distinguished professor of sociology and director of the Social Science Research Center. Throughout my entire graduate career, and still today, they served as my mentors and trusted colleagues.

Mentoring is a two-way partnership between a more seasoned expert who serves as a guide, challenger, and/or role model to a novice. This relationship has far-reaching benefits and allows the protégé to:

1) Better manage learning.

2) Maximize career potential.

3) Develop “pracademic” skills.

4) Improve self-performance.

Put differently, mentoring serves as a means to creating synergy and harnessing talent. In regards to public service, mentoring is necessary, often igniting students’ passion for connectivity. When I was a student, my aforementioned mentors encouraged me to become involved in a number of professional activities, particularly the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) and to actively engage with their agendas. For that, I am indeed grateful, for I would not be the person I am today.

I joined ASPA in 2005 while earning my master’s degree. None of my fellow students really understood what the organization was all about and we certainly didn’t appreciate the importance of being members. It wasn’t until I attended my first ASPA conference in San Jose, California in 2010, that I was able to comprehend its significance. My current administrator and new mentor, Dr. Paul L. Posner, was president at the time. I saw firsthand how ASPA provided a close network of professional colleagues. I was immediately hooked and, yes, hooked for life. Since then, my involvement has exploded. I have presented at more than a dozen national and regional conferences and served on a number of committees.

Some of the more memorable things during this period include having served as a student representative to National Council, chair of the Founders’ Fellow Selection Committee, chair of the Mentoring Work Group, chair of the Young Scholars Workshop, and a board member for the Section on Crisis and Emergency Management. I was even chosen to be one of the few members of the executive director search committee.

As you can see, one simple piece of advice can change the entire trajectory of your professional path. Without a doubt, my career would not be what it is today had Drs. French and Cosby not nudged me along the way. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the critical support and guidance that former ASPA President Dr. Stephen E. Condrey provided, often serving as mentor to so many of my peers. We often call ourselves The Condreylites.

Recently, I have come full-circle and can reflect upon my mentoring relationships. I have become a mentor and now carry forward the many values instilled in me. It is a daunting task at times but also rewarding. After all, you are building trust and reciprocated loyalty.

With that, I implore others to apply for mentoring programs, either to be mentored or to become a mentor. A great way to get started is to look for ASPA’s annual call to apply for a Founders’ Fellowship. If selected, a graduate student and/or young professionals can become part of a mentoring program that pairs them with a leading scholar or practitioner in the field. Another way is to join one of the many ASPA topical sections and reach out to its leadership for possible mentoring opportunities. Most importantly, don’t forget that you can always look in your school or departmental backyard. Many of your professors and supervisors are willing to fulfill this role; you merely need to ask.

Finally, a note of caution. Be mindful that a mentoring arrangement is a give and take relationship. As such, it can be structured or unstructured, fluid or dynamic, or organic or inorganic. Each mentoring relationship will be different, so do not set unrealistic expectations given its multidimensional parameters. Enter into each mentoring relationship as a partnership and I guarantee you will gain valuable insights into your field.


Author: Tonya T. Neaves is the managing director of the centers on the public service at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government and International Affairs. Tonya has a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration and her research interests include public safety and emergency management. She also serves as a District II Representative to ASPA’s National Council and is treasurer for the Section on Emergency and Crisis Management.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to The Importance of Mentoring

  1. David Reed Reply

    October 19, 2015 at 11:06 am

    Thanks for noting that mentoring is about “building trust and reciprocated loyalty.” Academics know that is what their mentoring relationships are about, but career practitioners rarely form such long-term mentor-protege relationships that persist when the protege moves on to another employer. If we did this more, it would strengthen the career public service.

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