Give back…And make it last

iMentor - waiting teen boy.jpg

One young man sits alone during a mentoring session — even though he didn’t yet have a mentor at this time. Which reminds me: Guys, we need you, too!

I always thought I would study engineering when I was younger. I took what today are STEM classes – chemistry, calculus and anything I could get my hands on to make a technical future possible.

Until Day 1 of engineering school orientation at Texas A&M. That’s when I learned that, unless I declared an area of specialization that day, mine would be Aeronautical Engineering.

At which point I promptly changed my major — to journalism. Never looked back.

Starting college is one thing

It took me twice as long as most people to earn just one degree, but I did eventually finish. What I wished I’d had in high school, though, was a college and career counselor.

I don’t know if this support system is any better now than 30 years ago, but why doesn’t anyone tell you to study what you’re naturally good at? I mean, I got the news from a friend of my brother who hardly knew me!

Still, even if you get into college, it’s a whole other thing to stay in. There could be a whole slew of reasons why it’s so hard, but in my case, my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer in what would’ve been my junior year. For two years, I worked odd jobs trying to help support my mom before realizing I wasn’t going back to TAMU and that I would have to forfeit my scholarships.

Perhaps feeling a bit rebellious, I tried next to travel the world as a flight attendant, only to ground my own travel career when I realized grief wasn’t a license to run away from reality.

Thank goodness my dad left me with perseverance. It took something like five tries before I earned my bachelor’s degree  – moving from city to city, school to school, earning credits, credits not transferring, withdrawing, re-enrolling. What a wild ride. Then I got married, still with two years of school to go.

I only hope my mentee has that “counselor”

So, that was me. Now, I mentor someone else who could very well face a first-generation college student scenario like mine. The difference is, this time someone will be there to catch her and keep cheering her on.

When we meet each month during the school year, a common theme in our conversations is how life often doesn’t run in a straight line…it’s a kind of winding thing. But we keep getting up and going — right turns, wrong turns…we keep going.

And she can totally do it. She can nail university studies. Heck, she could nail law school. I mean, this girl is smart and driven, and she can do pretty much anything she wants. Well, with the proper support system around her.

Family is (almost) everything

Thank goodness her parents are constantly encouraging her to excel in school so she can continue her studies in college. But even they don’t know what to expect or how to help her prepare.

That’s where Mentor 2.0 comes in.

I’d been seeking a mentoring opportunity for years. It started when I was a student at the University of Houston, where I eventually graduated, and where I’d seen a sign recruiting tutors for high school students at a school across the highway from campus.

Since way back then, I would get on mailing lists and wait for programs to spin up, when in 2016 I finally heard about Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Mentor 2.0 program.

The big sell for me was that Mentor 2.0 specifically targets college-bound high school students who may lack the support network needed to get them to and through college.

And honestly, Mentor 2.0 is really doable for the average working person:

  • One supervised, face-to-face meeting monthly (with mentors, mentees and super-committed school faculty and BBBS staff);
  • Simple, weekly assignments to collaborate on via a secure online environment, and
  • An optional note to the mentee in between assignments, via a secure chat tool, to help them stay encouraged.

The time commitment is usually about 30 minutes a week, with once-a-month meetings at about two hours each.

Now, don’t flinch: This is a four-year commitment. I mean, we’re not stuffing envelopes, friends; we trying to affect a whole lifetime, right? That takes a little commitment. For me after just one year, the payoff has already been huge.

So glad I did it

This is seriously one of the best commitments I’ve ever made. Not only are my mentee and I well matched (similar interests, goals and personalities), but she inspires me so much and makes me want to give her all the support I didn’t know how to find myself. (Heck, she even inspired me to return to school!)

I won’t lie, though: All the “woulda, coulda, shouldas” sometimes get in my head. It sometimes takes me a little while to shake it off and remember this is not about me.

An opportunity with loads of dividends

If you’re in a position to influence a young person’s life, do it. If you live in Colorado and can do it through Mentor 2.0 I’d be more than happy to connect you to this fantastic program.

The thing is, you just never know which other lives you might be affecting besides your student’s. Because when the mentee’s life starts to change, they will start to see themselves as an agent of change in the world.

And then there’s just no stopping them.

Help them get started. Join us.

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Why just start stuff (great!) when you can finish it? (AWESOME)

TheQuiltI come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I’m wired to start stuff. Ironically, when I have something big on my plate — especially if I’m passionate about it — I’m also driven to finish it.

Starters aren’t usually lumped in with finishers. There’s a reason for that. We love variety and hate routine. We look for the zig when everyone else is looking for zag.

We absolutely need the dynamic of seeing things develop, watching them evolve.

An old boss used to tease me about being a terrible finisher. That was years before I’d led a project to stand up a big, enterprise-wide system that’s now part of business as usual for a large global nonprofit.

Did I love all the details and meetings? Not so much. But the end product motivated me so much, it was worth slogging through it all (with a lot of help from my friends and coworkers, of course).

My quilt wasn’t anywhere near a big project vocationally, but personally it was huge. By the way, it’s officially finished now. (Full reveal soon.)

But not 15 minutes had passed before I wanted to start another one.

It reminds me how completing something significant spawns the need to do it all over again — warts and all.

My quilt is far from perfect, but learning to make it ranks high on my Things That Make Me Really Happy list. More importantly, my friend’s son, the recipient, can know it was made with so much love.

And the next two quilt projects — they’re already lined up!

Ms. Peterson and writing for mobile

Journal being written in by a hand holding a pen

Photo by ynsle @ sxc.hu

A project I worked on recently re-taught me something I learned way back in high school English – but only because I’d gotten a big, fat, red “F” on a term paper.

At the time, I was crushed.

How could it be that, after spending time reviewing my draft with me, my teacher, Ms. Peterson – who’d even told me she’d not seen some of the perspective I’d presented on that classic work – still gave me an “F”?

Ms. Peterson: Nydia, I couldn’t even read it. It was all in one paragraph.
Little, naïve me: So what’s the problem?
Ms. Pete: You can’t write a paper all in one paragraph. Every new idea starts a new paragraph. Give it back to me that way tomorrow and I’ll change your grade.

Ever had that Why-didn’t-anyone-ever-tell-me-that-before feeling? Yeah, that one.

One idea, one paragraph – or less?
These days, the one-idea-per-paragraph rule applies more than ever. With more people accessing the web via mobile, most ideas need to be broken down, sometimes to one sentence per paragraph. (I don’t do it often, but it can be helpful, especially in longer-form pieces.)

After all, what fits on a web page doesn’t necessarily look as good on the screen of a handheld device.

Chop, chop
It feels choppy to write like this sometimes, but when I look it over on my phone, for example, I know that if someone can finish a paragraph there, they’ve completed a thought. That means they’re more likely to finish the article.

So if you’ve gotten this far, thank you. Clearly, Ms. Pete gets at least partial credit for it.

Slow going

Up there with slow food lately is my interest in slow learning. As in, learning new things at my own, leisurely pace.

I’ve had a lot more time and flexibility in recent months for things like writing, meditating and – wait for it – learning to quilt.

The quilt that started it all. I've been obsessed ever since with modern quilting.

Hot Spot by Alissa Haight Carlton. The quilt that started it all. I’ve been obsessed ever since with modern quilting.

If you know me at all, you may need to pick up that jaw from the floor. Except for classes in Home Economics in, what, 7th grade? – now called Family and Consumer Science – I’ve really never made anything by hand in my life. Two semesters of pottery don’t count.

I have more gifted artist and craftsman friends than I can count, yet I’ve always assumed I couldn’t make much besides food, music or a little trouble on the dance floor.

Then again, until recently I’d never found a craft I wanted to learn. Enter modern quilting, my new inspiration.

Today, I was mostly offline, and it was great. I am nearly finished making my very first quilt (to be revealed later, probably on Instagram, after I’ve gifted it to my friend).

The idea of taking things slowly today gave me the time, permission and freedom I needed to get this project near the finish line. One more step and I’m done.

From what I hear, unfinished bindings mean Purgatory for most quilts. So getting over that hump the first time around feels like a pretty big deal.

Not only am I happy to finish it — I’m thrilled to pick up a new skill I can enjoy and share with others the rest of my life. It can be my new gift of choice — along with fruit cake.

You can do better

I’m really happy there is finally some representation of ethnic families with sitcoms like ABC’s “Blackish” and “Cristela.” Most weeks Blackish makes me laugh until I cry. Culturally, though, I relate most to Cristela.

While I don’t find Cristela’s mom’s character entirely believable as a first-generation American, I can appreciate the lessons she teaches.

Tonight’s episode especially hit home with me.

natalia

ABC’s Cristela’s mom Natalia (Terri Hoyos) defends a difficult parenting decision. (Source: Cristela FB page)

In this episode, Cristela’s mom, Natalia, reveals she had not entered Cristela, now a 20- or 30-something legal intern, into the gifted and talented program when she was a little girl because “people like us” didn’t belong in “fancy programs” like that. Basically, they would have been aiming too high, beyond their social status.

Cristela’s character eventually comes to appreciate her mother’s decision, made out of the desire to protect her. Natalia was, after all, a single mom doing the best she could for her young family.

This struggle triggered something in me I totally didn’t expect – a belated appreciation for my mom’s determination to ensure my best possible future.

It actually set off my tear ducts.

[Cue high school memory scene.]

One time, in high school, I came home with less-than-perfect grades – mostly As, with a couple of A- and a B+. I was so excited to show my mom! She would be so proud.

“You can do better.” That was her response.

What??? I can do what??? You mean, that wasn’t good enough?

I carried this disbelief, the shock and the sense that I’d disappointed my mom for – well, let’s just say it went on far too long.

What I didn’t realize then that I realize now – and, truly, especially after watching Cristela tonight – was that my mom was pushing me to aim higher.

Nothing at all wrong with protecting one’s kids from ridicule and humiliation. My mom, however, was willing to take that risk – taking me with her – of not being accepted for being different (which, by this age, I was pretty good at).

As someone who had to leave school at 12 to work and support her family, she knew working harder would grow both my character and my capacity. She knew I could do better.

My mom has never done anything less than teach me to be strong, have faith and, in the face of difficulty, get back up and dust myself off.

As we approach in a few weeks what would have been my parents’ 60th anniversary, I can’t help but be grateful for her strength and endurance since losing my dad nearly 30 years ago.

She remains my best girlfriend and biggest cheerleader. Even today, the way she lives her life is a reminder that we can always do better. So I will.

Writing about what hurts

Writing about what hurtsI recently reloaded content from a very old, long-running blog and just finished scanning it to see the type of stuff I wrote about. This is what I learned:

  1. I wrote some pretty good headlines back then.
  2. My topics were all over the place, like a journal.
  3. I never, ever wrote about my work.

That last one kind of stings.

Considering that time in my life changed my life completely, I sure managed to suppress how much poverty had taught me – how much I’d learned, how much I had let go of.

Still, in the words of Heather B. Armstrong, one of the first professional bloggers to monetize her blog before monetizing was cool:

“BE YE NOT SO STUPID. Never write about work on the internet unless your boss knows and sanctions that YOU ARE WRITING ABOUT WORK ON THE INTERNET.”

So I journaled (privately) a lot about work. I’m sure many people do. Maybe it’s what keeps us from breaking the law.

Anyway, I also had long hauls of multi-hour flights, with plenty of time to write about everything from:

  • eating in-flight, off-hours meals with my arms practically crossed (thank you, United);
  • miraculously getting from Jakarta to Singapore with absolutely no itinerary (I later learned); and
  • my “lost,” luggage somehow following me from Entebbe, Uganda, to London Heathrow with absolutely no tags on it.

That was the light stuff.

In fact, what I’d never blogged about is what weighed (then and now) heavily on my heart. It’s also the third – and so far, missing – leg on this blog’s intended three-legged stool: culture, communications and cause.

I’m not sure exactly how the topic of cause – of poverty – will unfold, but it’s feeling more and more like it’s time to let it happen. I’m praying for the courage to go there next.