An ode to the women mentors who have shaped my life


I was reading this NPR article today about finding a mentor and making it work, and it made me think of all the mentors I’ve had in my life. It’s no coincidence that all are women, and many are women of color. Some were managers from past jobs; others took time out of their busy lives to sit down with me and share career advice.

I hate that Madeleine Albright quote about how there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women, but I do hold a more positive version of that belief to be true: more often than not, women are kind, women are generous, and women look out for one another. I still remember when I told a former male boss that I was leaving in two weeks to take on a new job at a respected international development institution. His immediate reaction was not to wish me well, but rather: “you won’t be staff there, right? I assume you’ll just be a contractor.” He was right, but ouch.

Suffice to say, I would not be where I am today without all of the wise women I’ve encountered in my life. The ones who come to the top of my mind are…

S., who helped me find my first job ever. I had found her through the alumni database of my university; she had attended law school while I was an undergrad. She gave me advice, helped me practice for phone interviews, and forwarded job opportunities that she came across. One of those forwards, a job posting in a listserv, led to me finding my first job and realizing my dream of moving to DC two weeks after graduating from college. The best advice she ever gave me: “Don’t go to law school. I was on anti-depressants the entire time I was in law school.”

J., who helped me find my footing at my first job. For a time, she and I were the only Asians in the agency we both worked for. She held a PhD and a senior-level position; I was fresh out of college and terrified. I looked up to her, she took me under her wing, and we became genuine friends. She wrote me a recommendation for grad school. She drove me home after I had wisdom teeth surgery. We met for dinner right before I uprooted my life and moved to Switzerland a few months ago. “Don’t be scared,” she told me. “I know you’re going to do great.”

L., who opened new doors for me. L was my supervisor at a job that I hated: an abusive senior manager and exploitative low pay combined with the stress of going to grad school full-time in the evenings. It was hard to keep my head above water. L never micromanaged me, was extra flexible and accommodating of my school schedule, and always praised my work. She gave me the coolest opportunity I’ve ever had — the chance to staff an event featuring then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Queen Rania of Jordan, sitting just feet from their podium. L has written me a recommendation or served as a reference for every single job I’ve applied for since 2017. “I always knew you could do it,” she told me.

L., who erased the stigma of mental health in the workplace. We were coworkers and teammates at my old job, sitting back to back and frequently breaking out into pointless but fun conversations. Our friendship grew slowly and steadily. She shared how difficult it was to grieve the loss of her father, and how that led to her becoming not only an advocate but a teacher — someone is changing the lives of other people by helping them grieve and heal. She’s the reason I became comfortable with saying, “I feel really anxious or depressed today and can’t come into work,” and not worrying about being penalized by my boss. She sat with me for hours on a Sunday earlier this year, listened to me cry, and cried with me when I went through a traumatic experience. She taught me that hugs should last at least ten seconds — it’s awkward, but it works.

S., who is giving me courage in a new role. I recently started a new job and quickly encountered a major road block: someone on a different team who, out of sheer ego, was determined to make it hard for me to do a specific part of my job. I agonized over it for a month, stewing silently in anger whenever I recalled a particularly aggressive email that had landed in my inbox. Then I remembered that S, a woman on a different team who had met with me for lunch back when I’d first joined, had said, “If you ever feel frustrated, just tell me you want to take a walk together.” I messaged her and asked if she had time to take that walk. We talked in the garden behind the office; I laid out the dilemma. Her response: “Don’t sit around and wait in the hope that jerks will some day stop being jerks. Just go out and deliver the thing that you need to deliver.” I took that advice to heart. It worked.

Other honorable mentions:

K., who agreed to have coffee with me even though she didn’t know me at all. I was applying to the grad school program that she’d attended and wanted to pick her brain. Her best piece of advice: “Don’t take out private student loans. Stick to public loans ONLY, or you’ll be fucked.” Thank God I listened.

The woman whose name I do not know who consoled me when she heard me crying in the bathroom of our office building’s shared gym. I had been having an anxiety attack over not being able to find a new job. She listened, talked to me until I was calm, and provided so much kindness and support. I wish I’d asked for her name and organization at the time to properly thank her.

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