The Building Blocks of Mentorship

In higher education circles, mentors play a critical role in influencing the academic, career, and life paths of their mentees. Mentors say they also learn valuable lessons.

Illustration by Traci Daberko as a representation of mentorship. A hand places a block as a figure looks on.
Illustration: Traci Daberko

The mentor-mentee relationship is not quite like any other. It’s a little like coaching, but with an almost familial sense of personal legacy. In the natural sciences, scholarly influences are sometimes depicted by “academic trees” in the style of family trees. And every so often, especially when the relationship stretches through the years, it encompasses that of student and teacher, colleagues, friends, and extended family, all at the same time. 

It’s impossible to tell a complete story of this sometimes transformative bond. But these vignettes offer a glimpse into just a few of these relationships across several stages and phases, and what they mean to those lucky enough to experience them. 

Committed to Each Other

A few years after H. Yumi Kim arrived as the Krieger School’s first modern Japan historian, eight people were killed in the 2021 mass shooting in an Atlanta spa, six of them women of Asian descent. Combined with the anti-Asian sentiment swirling around the COVID-19 pandemic, Kim knew she had to do something to build up her students, especially Asian ones. 

She drew on the close relationships she already had with her formal mentor, Erin Chung, and Clara Han, professor in the Department of Anthropology. Together, they organized a roundtable on anti-Asian violence that drew 350 registrants, and went on to co-found the Critical Responses to Anti-Asian Violence initiative, or CRAAV. 

Building that coalition accelerated the bond. “Working on CRAAV cemented everything that I had known about Erin all along, but also helped me see the ways in which Erin is the kind of mentor who provides an example of how projects can be executed, what needs to be taken under consideration. In a very organic way, I’m constantly learning from watching how she does things,” Kim says. 

Colleagues and Friends

From the start, Chung had been fascinated by Kim’s research and began applying elements of Kim’s teaching style to her own. But working on the roundtable and CRAAV took things a step farther. “I saw her not so much as my mentee, but as an invaluable colleague and friend, and someone with whom I could be honest about the struggles that I was going through,” Chung says. 

Erin Chung

MENTOR: Erin Aeran Chung,
Charles D. Miller Professor of East Asian Politics, Department of Political Science 

H. Yumi Kim

MENTEE: H. Yumi Kim,
Assistant Professor,
Department of History 

When they met: Chung recruited Kim in 2015. 

Why it works: The lines blur between friend, mentor/ mentee, and colleague. 

Special moment: Kim’s mother brought Chung a surprise meal during the pandemic. 

Both say their collaborations represent not an obligation, but a commitment to each other. To protect Kim’s time, Chung takes on more than the typical share of writing when they jointly apply for a grant—a task the junior colleague is often expected to handle. Kim frames her current efforts toward earning tenure not only as a personal goal, but an appreciation of Chung’s confidence in her. 

Most of all, the two relish each other’s company both intellectually and personally. “Whenever I’m with Yumi, we laugh so much,” Chung says. “I immediately feel a sense of camaraderie and pure joy in our conversations. There’s no pretension, and we don’t have to prove anything to each other, and that’s really refreshing.” 

Through Chung’s example, Kim has found her whole outlook shifting. “It is through relationships that we learn other possible ways of living our lives,” Kim says. “Erin helps me remember that there is actually deep pleasure and fun in doing very difficult intellectual and political work. And that any work, for it to be effective and sustainable, has to be rooted in meaningful relationships with other people.” 

Paying it Forward

In 2021, graduate student Marta Śliwa wrote, in her nomination of Thomas Kempa for a Johns Hopkins Career Impact Award, “Tom always makes a point to remind us of the big picture, especially when we’re deep in the trenches of figuring out what is going on, and how to navigate through failures.” Kempa won the award. 

Kempa and Śliwa met during graduate recruitment season in 2017 and immediately hit it off. Partly because both hail from Polish families and speak fluent Polish. “Poles have a unique culture, which is a survivor culture and a very aspirational culture. Put us in the hardest circumstances, and we’ll always do something impressive or important,” Kempa says. 

Because science often presents problems that can be hard to pin down, Kempa often shares a favorite motto with members of his lab: Nature doesn’t reveal its secrets easily. It normalizes the hurdles, opening space for learning and growth. 

“I don’t care so much if a student is not making objective progress to the next milestone; what I care far more about is the attitude toward encountering that inevitable block,” Kempa says. “It was very clear that Marta wanted to figure it out and move forward, and for me that meant everything.” 

Śliwa says Kempa’s outlook—taught both by example and long conversations—has changed her and sustained her through a series of setbacks and delays. “Tom always finds a positive, and I have picked up that mindset and approach to problem solving. I’ve also learned that even the most successful individuals face challenges, and going forward in my career, I don’t have to be totally perfect or tied up with a bow to succeed.”

Thomas Kempa

MENTOR: Thomas Kempa,
Associate Professor,
Department of Chemistry 

Marta Sliwa

graduate student,
Department of Chemistry 

Sachi Hilliard

MENTEE: Sachi Hilliard,
graduate student,
Department of Chemistry 

One big family: When Śliwa’s mother sends Śliwa a care package, she sends one to Kempa, too. Śliwa’s partner brings Kempa gifts when he visits. “Tom’s a celebrity at home in Linden, New Jersey,” Śliwa says. 

Passing it On

Even before she officially starts that career, Śliwa has found ways to apply Kempa’s example with more junior grad students. In 2022, fellow grad student Sachi Hilliard nominated Śliwa for the same award that Kempa won in 2021, which Śliwa also won. 

Hilliard says Śliwa’s validation of her lab experience gave her confidence to take greater ownership of it. “Having someone who’s in your corner no matter what, that you can rely on, changes everything. And Marta is definitely that person for me,” Hilliard says. 

“Tom has made it very easy to be able to emulate his mentorship style,” Śliwa says, “and I’ve taken what has benefitted me—namely, honest conversations, and being very transparent about my own failures and humanity—to anyone that I’ve spoken to. Empathy and lived experiences are what I gained most from Tom’s mentorship, and that’s what I try to push forward with others.” 

Kempa believes mentorship works in two directions. When frustrations mount, he leans into his students’ advice to take each day a step at a time. “Seeing the young, wonderful minds coming in through your door every year is the best antidote to bitterness that I can think of, when you know there are people that care that much about you,” he says. 

Learning to Let Go

Bernadette Wegenstein and Lauren Mushro edited a book together, traveled the world, and worked on a film. But one of Wegenstein’s most important influences was her support of Mushro’s decision not to follow her into academia. 

Mushro entered her doctoral program expecting to become a professor of Spanish and Portuguese languages and literatures. After several seminars with Wegenstein, their common interest in the interplay of theory and practice drew them together. Mushro began assisting with “Films You Can’t See Anywhere Else,” a series Wegenstein had started at the Center for Advanced Media Studies. Then, with a few other students, they attended a film festival in Havana. They presented at a conference in Brazil, and they co-edited Radical Equalities and Global Feminist Filmmaking—An Anthology. Mushro then helped with the final tasks involved in releasing Wegenstein’s feature film The Conductor. The film is about Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director laureate Marin Alsop. 

Along the way, Mushro found herself considering a different career path. Such a shift might trouble some mentors, but not Wegenstein. 

“I immediately respected that decision, and thought it was a good decision because I’m not a very typical academic myself,” Wegenstein says. “I could see how she could really go anywhere, with all her talents.” 

Bernadette Wegenstein

MENTOR: Bernadette Wegenstein,
Professor of Media Studies,
Department of Modern Languages
and Literatures;
Director, Center for Advanced Media Studies 

Lauren Mushro

MENTEE: Lauren Mushro PhD ’22,
Modern Languages and Literatures; Senior Associate, State and Local Government Advisory Services, KPMG 

Bonding moment: A 24-hour taxi ride across Brazil after a canceled flight. 

Funny moment: When everyone began isolating during the pandemic, Wegenstein joked, “Let’s write a book!” (Then they wrote a book.) 

Seeing Ourselves in Others

Wegenstein and Mushro each see themselves in the other. It’s part of how they connected in the first place, and it’s part of what keeps their relationship strong. 

“Lauren was interested in everything. She’s capable of learning everything and every language, and she reminded me of myself,” Wegenstein says. 

“She’s really an artist, and she had this artistic and creative approach to theory. So she was a perfect mentee for me in that sense as well.” 

“Berna provided that sounding board, not only for the academic aspect, but we have so many similarities in our personal life that it’s really nice to be able to see what potential you could have in the future, especially if you see yourself in a mentor like Berna,” Mushro adds. “Berna does many different things. In addition to being a professor, she works on films, she has a family, and she has connections around the world. So it helped me realize how to be a multidimensional person, and realize the kind of person I’d like to be when I’m more advanced in my career.” 

Mentoring involves a selflessness that is not unlike parenting, Wegenstein observes: “It’s rewarding because on the one hand you see yourself in your mentee, but then you also let go.” 

Lifelong Ties

For his senior thesis in 1978, Chuck Clarvit researched what makes people decide whether to attend a baseball game. Under the direction of advisor Lou Maccini, Clarvit and a classmate statistically regressed factors including ticket price, win-loss record, and access routes to the stadium. 

Maccini pushed the students to keep digging, to keep looking for more data points to consider. The lesson has stayed with Clarvit. 

“There was always this need to improve upon what you were doing; don’t say you’re done,” he remembers. “I carry that in life. I do investments, and you want to have as much data as possible. You want to have accurate data. What are the data telling you? Where can that falsely lead you? All this is very similar to doing research on attendance at baseball games.” 

Maccini was so impressed with Clarvit’s persistence—with the thesis and with the field in general—that he knew he wanted to stay in touch after Clarvit graduated. 

“You would come in and ask questions that were insightful and important to what’s going on,” Maccini reminded Clarvit during a recent conversation. “It raised questions in my own mind, and that doesn’t happen with many advisees.” 

Lou Maccini

MENTOR: Louis Maccini,
Professor Emeritus,
Department of Economics

Chuck Clarvit

MENTEE: Chuck Clarvit ’78,
CEO, Clarvit Capital Family Office 

Determining factor in baseball attendance, according to Clarvit’s research: Star power— the presence of a big name on the team. 

Baseball attendance factor that didn’t make the cut: Beer quality: “We actually went to a number of stadiums, tasted the beer and rated it, and we determined that it wasn’t a relevant factor.” 

Supporting the Next Generation

Clarvit valued Maccini’s guidance so much that when Maccini began talking with several alumni about starting a finance program in the department in the 1990s, Clarvit was all in. He became part of a core group of alumni who, under Maccini’s leadership, eventually launched the Center for Financial Economics in 2007. Clarvit endowed two chairs at the center. One in honor of Maccini, and one honoring another of Clarvit’s early professors, the late Carl Christ. 

Clarvit’s appreciation for Maccini also made him a lifelong supporter of Hopkins. He completed terms on advisory boards for the university and the Krieger School, and continues to serve on several other Hopkins boards. 

“I’m a big advocate for universities and what they do for society by preparing you,” Clarvit says. 

“Those four years are so influential on your next 40 years of career, and I don’t think most people appreciate the need to give back and make sure our higher education is done at its highest standard possible. Hopkins has been in my life since I was 18 years old. So it obviously touched me, and Lou is a big reason for that. A big, big reason.” 

Maccini always considered it his responsibility to prepare his students for all aspects of their future. “What’s important is that you not only teach students the material of the course, but also how to think and to continue with the thinking processes once they graduate,” he says. “There are always questions that need to be raised and processed, and you want students to learn that process so that they will have successful careers in their professional areas, but also in their personal lives.” 

Paths Opening

Lubna Azmi ’23 saw Homayra Ziad as a mentor from the first moments they met. It was partly the way Ziad helped her think, in classes where topics included Islam in America, activism, and the legacy of 9/11. It was also the long conversations they had, and the way those helped shape Azmi’s identity as a Moroccan-American Muslim woman. 

“I was able to see Islam in such a new light because of you, your classes, and the way that you lead your life as a Muslim woman,” Azmi told Ziad, who is Pakistani-American, during a recent conversation. Growing up, Azmi had come to believe there was a single way to be Muslim, and she wasn’t sure she completely fit the mold. “But seeing you, and having those discussions with you, I felt much more confident in my identity. I’m proudly and unapologetically Muslim.” 

It’s a priority for Ziad to create space for deep conversation with all of her students. She devotes the first day of new classes to the life stories that brought each student there. But her connection with some students grows more personal. It’s not only that Azmi puts her whole heart into her academic and community work, Ziad says, but also that she’s accountable. She follows through on every project she begins. And Azmi holds Ziad to the same standard as a mentor, Ziad says: “You pull me into my mentorship by your very being, as a person who is raring to go shine your light,” she tells Azmi.

Homayra Ziad

MENTOR: Homayra Ziad,
Senior Lecturer, Program in Islamic Studies  

Lubna Azmi

MENTEE: Lubna Azmi ’23,
international studies and sociology major, Islamic studies and film and media studies minor

 Family moment: Azmi recruited Ziad’s two children as actors in a film she made about food insecurity. 

Azmi’s advocacy efforts: In recognition of her dedication to social justice, Azmi was selected for Hopkins’ Kessler Scholars Program, which provides support to first-generation college students. Among other activities, Azmi co-founded a mutual aid group and organized against a high school rezoning and new juvenile detention facility in her hometown, and advocates for immigrant rights, voting rights, and racial justice.

A Process of Growth

A couple of years ago, Azmi—who grew up in northern Virginia—returned from a visit to Morocco with a hand-lettered plaque that reads “Dr. Ziad” in Arabic. Both the gift itself and the acknowledgement of her scholarly standing in a gendered field were a huge honor, Ziad says. It shows Azmi’s nuanced awareness. “There’s something so deeply grounded about you. You know who you are at a really young age,” Ziad tells her mentee. 

Ziad says she loves helping students learn to see their own strengths and where they might take them, and gains something herself in the process. “Seeing somebody else’s path open up in front of them helps me also see mine anew, helps me ask the right questions to myself as well,” she says. And it’s part of a larger goal: “While I want my mentees to discern where their personal joy and inspiration lie, I also ask them to see where their leadership is called forth by the world around them.” 

Azmi says she’s become a better community member, a better community organizer, and a more understanding person under Ziad’s wing. “Just seeing someone who’s confident, kind, beautiful, and amazing, doing academic work—that’s such an inspiration for me, that it’s possible for me as well,” she says.

An Expanded Approach to Mentorship

Conceptual illustration by Traci Daberko. A figure ascends steps inside a profile representing the mentorship experience.
Illustration: Traci Daberko

The mentor-mentee vignettes featured here highlight some of the many organic directions mentorship can take, and the Krieger School is cultivating an environment in which such relationships can grow. 

Beginning in spring 2024, the Office of Academic Advising will take on the role of advising students for all four years (previously, this was a departmental responsibility once students declared a major), leaving departments free to design their own innovative methods of engaging with their students. 

Meredith Ward, senior lecturer in the Program in Film and Media Studies, was recently appointed as a Dean’s Fellow for Undergraduate Mentorship, meeting with academic departments to identify their current cultures of mentorship and explore how these approaches can grow. Dean’s Fellows are faculty members who apply their expertise and experience to assist the dean in an area of strategic importance. 

Ward has long been invested in supporting all aspects of student wellbeing. “They are more than just students; they’re people. How do we cultivate this sense of the whole person in everything we do? And what role can different components of the university have in encouraging that full person to thrive?” she asks. 

Prioritizing Specific Needs

As she and Jessie Martin, assistant dean for academic advising, meet with chairs and directors of undergraduate studies across the Krieger School, answers emerge, along with dialogue about what practices make best use of each department’s and program’s faculty, and best meet their students’ needs and interests. 

Following the meetings, Ward will continue to support departments as they realize these plans. She plans to offer workshops to help faculty discover their “mentorship personality” and how to cultivate it. She will also create a digital toolkit for departments to use as they engage with mentorship—aids that departments can draw on as they think through new approaches and systems. 

Most important, Ward says, are the discussion and reflection that departments and programs engage in as they consider the culture they want to offer undergrads, how they might create or deepen that culture, and what existing or new structures will allow it to thrive. 

Ward says it is a strength of the university that each department has different ways of thinking about learning and the act of education and different understandings of relationships with students; and that each shares her interest in a renewed focus on mentorship.