What was supposed to be a few month’s trip to Europe ended up extending into a decade-long trip abroad. When Dr. K returned to the States, specifically Michigan, he came back with, as he describes it, a “nickel and a baby.” In other words, he returned to Michigan broke with a family. But he actually brought home far more: priceless experience, perspective, and insight. And later, when he joined the faculty of Western Michigan University’s international studies department, that’s exactly what he shared with Kathryn, one of our Muse Guides.
Kathryn was in her final year of honors college when her longtime advisor and instructor, Dr. K, made the transition to mentor.
In this article we’ll explore the phenomenal impact that having a mentor can have on the careers of creatives. We’ll examine how such guidance can unlock potential, make unknowns known, and pad direction with experience.
It was in Kathryn’s final year that she worked with refugees relocating to the States. She helped them write resumes and complete job applications, and more importantly, she provided context for what these actions meant in U.S. culture.
She also tutored them in English, leading them in one-on-one activities that furthered their understanding of the new language. She offered further support by helping them apply for government assistance programs, and kept their case notes up to date. She also led orientations that taught them how to use the Battle Creek, Michigan bus service, including how to get off at their home, work, and the Asia Food Market, where most of the families liked to shop.
Even if Kathryn wasn’t travelling herself, she was meeting people from all over the world—places like Burma, Iraq, and Rwanda. For fifteen hours out of the week she was having meaningful experiences and helping others, a gesture that spoke to the high value she places on both education and friendships.
The experience spoke to what she valued but it wasn’t without its challenges.
There were the moments that questions, posed in English, about a person’s job background were meant with nervous stares and nervous laughter. Kathryn was responsible for helping this person assimilate into the U.S. workforce, sprucing up their resumes, making them attractive to Michigan-based businesses—but just understanding what their strengths were was no small feat.
And even beyond the day-to-day challenges, was the struggle to undertake the internship at all. It was a major time commitment for someone who was working to complete her thesis, as well as a financial investment. She was responsible for her own transportation for a job that was more than 50 miles away, roundtrip.
But even in her toughest moments she knew that solace, direction, and support was coming.
At the end of each week she’d meet with Dr. K, and seven other students, at a pizza shop on her same street. Over slices of banana pepper and black olive, they’d discuss the challenges that each person was having (the other students performed similar roles at their internships). More than that though, they worked together to analyze those challenges, reframe them, and come up with solutions.
Kathryn was massively supported by it and had a really positive impact on what she was able to deliver and how she was able to help.
It’s a resource that few take advantage of, however—especially in the creative sphere. Mentorships are common practices in universities and nursing, but given the phenomenal assistance they provide—more people should be taking advantage of them.
Let’s look at the top three reasons creatives can best benefit from mentorship programs.
Open Doors to Opportunity, Growth and Insight
There were a number of takeaways, both personal and professional, that Kathryn took away from her internship experience.
On a professional level, she got her foot in the door. After the internship concluded she was asking to carry on her work by joining the staff full-time. It was an opportunity and experience that launched her professionally. More than that, the mentorship created a solid network of people, both folks on staff and the students from her weekly pizza cohort. According to Kathryn, these are people who she could still call upon now or reach out to for help, whether it be for insight or additional work experience.
On a personal level, the internship allowed Kathryn to very quickly learn what her strengths and her weaknesses were—and more importantly, not just whether it was a strength, but a strength she actually enjoyed.
While she may have taken pains to report each person’s case, and her reports were indeed flawless, she didn’t really enjoy that kind of record keeping. She didn’t enjoy getting lost in the notes and data, nearly as much as meeting these people and understanding what they wanted out of their future careers. For Kathryn, the experience made her realize that for her, it’s about the people.
And none of these realizations—not the job nor the personal insight—would have been possible without this internship. It was an internship recommended to Kathryn by her mentor, Dr. K. He had the resources, networking, and experience to know what was available, and he knew Kathryn well enough that she would find it to be an enriching and rewarding experience.
In a creative capacity, this means insights and advice tailored to you that come from someone who understands your goals, your direction, and your passions.
It means someone working with you to create a space where you can best explore your creative pursuits. And it means engineering an experience in which creative growth is possible.
Making Connections in the Chaos
Early in the internship, Kathryn found herself opposite a Burmese gentleman, Bawi. She was building his resume from scratch, attempting to not only understand his past work experience but his skills within his previous work.
It was a slow process, with a language barrier that brought more confusion than answers.
It was one of the first things she mentioned to Dr. K at the end of the week over slices.
She was unclear of how to move forward. She didn’t know what she could do to overcome this obstacle and really connect with her clients and help them, help her, help them.
She asked Dr. K about his experience spending years traveling through Asia. He shared his observations of his time there—and this sparked an idea.
The next week, she not only sat down with Bawi, but three other Burmese refugees who were looking to establish new lives in Michigan.
The results were pretty incredible. They could be considered something of a breakthrough. Culturally, she learned, the Burmese focus more on the family and community over the individual.
“It helped to have it in a group setting because it made it more comfortable for them,” noted Kathryn. “It also helped because each person had a little bit of English they could contribute, so they’d help each other as well.”
She found that the experience was far less intimidating for the new Michigander, and far more fun. And the results were far more rewarding as well.
When her situation presented more challenges than solutions, her mentor was there to inspire the connection in the chaos.
Kathryn listened and learned from her mentor’s experience, using it to find a solution.
The same is true for creatives. It doesn’t have to be a lonely road to the resolution of a problem.
As creatives, when we come to a precipice overlooking our own gap in knowledge, we don’t have to build a bridge across through trial and error. Instead, with a creative mentor, we can build a better bridge inspired by already knowing what has and hasn’t worked in the past.
We can be inspired to do our best work, reaching those connections sooner, while leaving the chaos of not knowing behind.
Driven by More
No matter the challenges, Kathryn returned to her internship week after week. She credits that perseverance and drive largely to what happened between each week—on the weekend meet-ups with her mentor and fellow students.
It soon became clear to Kathryn that she was no longer in this pursuit of knowledge and experience just for herself, but for her mentor, Dr. K, as well. If she were to excuse herself from the hard work, or check out of the challenges—she'd be letting down her mentor.
It was a level of accountability that she appreciated to help her push through the tougher times.
Creatives are imaginative people who often become thrilled by the spark of a new idea, grab hold of it, and run. But the spark soon fades, and we find ourselves moving on to the next flicker of a great idea. There will always be another spark.
And when we pursue the next spark, we find that obstacles soon get in the way, and rather than push on, we seek out the path of least resistance.
What's missing is the encouragement and accountability to see these ideas through. That's what Kathryn found in Dr. K. In her greatest hurdles, she didn't just go to Dr. K for his insight and experience. She was inspired to persevere because she knew that not only was he championing her success, but her failure would be a disappointment to him as well.
She now had a responsibility not just to herself and her clients, but to her mentor as well—and that's where the final push to succeed came from. That's what held her accountable. That's what inspired her drive to be more innovative in her approach, and to build of his established experience and expertise to reach her goals.
It was hard work, but more than the act of coaching or encouragement, Dr. K inspired Kathryn to push on and do her best work.
Mentorship programs are that inspiration that can support creatives from a spark to a fully formed idea.
Because of this experience Kathryn has long heralded the benefits of growing with a mentor. It's one of the many reasons we've all been working so passionately to build our latest effort. It's one that will inspire creatives to go from the spark of an idea, to a fully formed passion project—one that's portfolio worthy.