At 19 I was a sophomore in college, struggling to decide what I wanted to do with my future, and, as a lifelong jack-of-all-trades, I was starting to resemble a pancake with the number of times I flip-flopped on my major.
Enter my mentor. They were my academic advisor — my fourth one I’d had in two short years — and I was awestruck by the fact that I actually managed to find a professor who not only understood my chronic overachievement, crippling self-doubt, and status as an ‘introverted extrovert,’ but had been through a number of eerily similar situations in life, as well.
As time passed, I realized my non-communicative ways would have to change and started opening up, and the mentorship emerged. Instead of talking about what classes I should take, it became the ideal sort of student-advisor relationship that tends to make other people jealous. It was about crafting a course for my future that included every element of my life. As I explored my field, my mentor helped me navigate the waters of attending academic conferences, working to improve my professional writing skills, and more — all while helping me face the issues impacting my personal life as well.
When I faced problems with my parents not wanting me to go abroad, my mentor was there for me. When I needed help becoming more assertive and “leaning in” before Sheryl Sandberg coined the phrase, they were instrumental in my success.
With my mentor’s help, I graduated early, beat out countless seniors for an essay competition, presented an academic paper at multiple conferences, got accepted into all the top-tier grad schools I’d applied to, and received a full-ride faculty scholarship to a university in the United Kingdom.
Despite all of the good things that happened in my life because of my mentor, they also caused one of the biggest disappointments I’ve ever known: Halfway through my senior year, they turned against me.
I’ll never know why, but our honest conversations turned cagey and clipped. When I went to them for their usual open and enthusiastic advice, they now encouraged me to look elsewhere. While I juggled a full course load and a full-time job, the mentorship essentially decayed until it disappeared entirely.
My friends and a few classmates speculated over what might have happened, but none of us could land on a reason. Everything seemed normal, and the most prevalent theories were outlandish at best. We never could land on the true root of the problem, no matter how hard we tried. Maybe my mentor wanted to focus on their family. Maybe the university decided that I’d grown too close to my mentor and their spouse and assumed the relationship was inappropriate (which was far from the case). I even tried addressing the change in behavior to my mentor directly, but nothing ever came of it. I wanted to be angry, to demand answers, but I was too nervous — and too non-confrontational — to push the issue further.
Soon after, I graduated early — thanks in part to their support. But by the time my graduation ceremony rolled around, the final nail slammed into the coffin of our relationship. Although the entire department congregated beforehand, laughing, swapping stories, and offering words of wisdom, not two words passed between us. I was given the cold shoulder, even though I had absolutely no idea why. After the ceremony, my mentor’s spouse — someone I had previously considered a dear friend — said four of the most painful words I’d heard:
“Have a nice life.”
I could’ve heard a pin drop as my heart stopped beating. Surely, this wasn’t happening — especially not after three years, countless conversations over coffee, and dinners with both of them. It was also a weird thing to say since they knew my plan was to stay and live and work in my small college town; the likelihood of us running into each other was high.
But we didn’t. I tried reaching out from time to time over the years, only to get a terse reply, or no reply at all. The few alumni events I’ve attended were excruciatingly awkward, and I’ve given up hope that it will change in the future.
For me, losing a mentor like that — abruptly, and without cause or warning — was completely debilitating. It shattered my confidence, making me doubt myself and my path in life, in a way that took me years to recover from. During grad school, I struggled to open up to my professors because of it, and I left the university with only three faculty members knowing my name. I doubt they’d remember me if I spoke to them today.
But in other ways, losing a mentor was a blessing in disguise. After the initial shock passed, the experience kicked me into high gear. Within a year, I’d interviewed Julian Assange, completed my Master’s degree, won a NATO-sponsored competition to attend the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, and more. I wanted to prove to myself, the world, and my ex-mentor that I could succeed.
While that drive was a wonderful silver lining to the struggle of losing a mentor, a part of me is still reeling from the loss. Whenever I’m reminded of my alma mater or I hear my fiancé talking about getting great advice, I wonder if my life would be different if I hadn’t experienced that rejection. Would I be more successful? Less? Would I have taken the same career course? Would I have my Ph.D. right now?
Mostly I just want to know: Why?
But sometimes in life, we don’t get the happy ending where all of the strings are tied up in pretty little bows. Sometimes we’re left hanging, and we need to learn to pick ourselves up and march forever onward.
For me, there’s one thing that has helped me move on — something I have only been able to accomplish in the past year — and release the bitterness. In this futile quest to seek approval from the person who let me down (because let’s call it like it is), I’ve learned to focus on a different kind of ‘why’:
Why does it matter?
The thing is, it doesn’t. If I can find fulfillment, whether it’s driven by revenge or my own desire to improve and succeed, the rest doesn’t really make a difference. It doesn’t affect my future that the relationship will probably never be mended, though that part is sad to admit. And even though I’m nervous writing this because I’m worried about what might happen if my former mentor reads it, I know I have to keep moving forward. It’s tough, sure, but that’s life. Sometimes the hardest experiences make us the strongest.
Jandra Sutton is an author, historian, and doer of things. After graduating from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana with a B.A. in History, she went on to receive a Master’s degree in Modern British History from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. In her spare time, Jandra enjoys fangirling, running, and anything related to ice cream. Pluto is still a planet in her heart. She lives in Nashville with her fiancé and their two dogs.
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