Mentoring: a snippet of my journey - Mariem Sanoe

It all started in 2010, when I walked into the English department upset and confused about a number of things. It was the end of January and the beginning of the semester at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). I didn’t walk into that specific department to speak to a specific person or ask a specific question. I was lost, confused, and let’s say very disappointed. The causes of my disappointment and frustration have faded over the years, but financial aid dropping my courses at the last minute and then asking me to pay $700 out of pocket was definitely among them.

As a person who never cries, at least not in front of others, this time I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t in control of them and they were falling heavily on my cheeks like a waterfall. When I stepped off the escalator on the seventh floor, I walked into the first open door I saw, paying no attention to any of the three secretaries at the desks. One asked me loudly, “Ma’am, can I help you?” I told her I wanted to see someone about my classes, stiffly and in a raspy voice as I tried to hide the emotional and physical imbalances turmoil inside me. She asked me to give her a second, and then she directed me straight ahead to the office I was headed toward anyways—the only office you see when you walk into the English department.

The five steps towards the office felt like five hours. When I finally reached the open door, I knocked anyway, and she looked up and said “Hi, can I help you?” in a calm, composed voice, with a facial expression like “what the hell happened to her”? while she still compose a smile on her face. I immediately took a seat before she offered. My butt was on the chair as she said you can have a sit. I and started to explain myself before she asked me anything else. My stories were complicated and long, and even I didn’t really understand them. As I spoke and spoke, she took notes. At the end, when I’d finished crying, she told me that everything would be ok. I should take it one day at a time, and it definitely wasn’t the end of the world even if it felt like it. A sense of heaviness lifted off my shoulders, almost like I just drank a very cold latte where I could feel the cold sensation in my chest during a hundred-degree humidity day. She gave me a few numbers to contact and give her an update.

I left her office feeling at ease and heard. I felt a sense of support, care, and love. I had walked around the campus for five hours, maybe more, and no one had been able to give me an answer to my questions or a number to call. She did all that in less than an hour. Then she stood up from her black leather spinning chair, slowly pulled tissues from a blue box on the right side of her desk, and stretched her long arm out, asking me to wipe my eyes while she stretched the other one for a huge hug, making me cry more. Now my tears were tears of joy, though, and realization that I could go back to someone. I rushed out of her office waving goodbye to the secretaries and just as quickly rushed back in to grab a contact card, forgetting that she’d already given me one. “Two is better than one,” I thought.  

A lot of thoughts ran through my head as I walked down Chambers Street to catch the E train. Later, on the ride back to Queens, I smiled a little as I thought about the day and said to myself, “The next second is always a new beginning, not the next day. I hope whatever notes she was taking; she doesn’t hold against me.” I thought this because I knew she would be the one I would always go to. Whether she remained in that chair or not, she would forever be my mentor.

My brother Mussa taught me the importance of mentorship when I was in elementary school. He always tried to stick me in a program or to top me by having someone he knew get me to think outside the box. He would make me send emails I never followed up on and read articles I sure wasn’t interested in. But all the way through to college, until the day I met her, I never really understood the importance of mentorship. Now, as an adult, I have more than ten mentors I connected to after her, I realize how powerful it is, and I have him to thank for that.

Dr. Margaret Barrow was the person who held me high at my lowest that day at BMCC. She is the one who gave me resources that I needed and more, and most importantly she told me I wasn’t dying. Anyone could have told me that, and anyone could have given me the same contacts and resources, but not everyone would keep their word every single day. She has since treated me more like a daughter than a student advisee. She took me under her wing at college and off campus, taking me out to lunch, breakfast, and events and involving me in her conferences at the college for the last ten years. I even stole books from her office that she never knew about until she noticed that they looked familiar when I was carrying them. She supported me in my best ideas and my worst ones so that I could fail and learn. She has ignored me for months and let me fix things with only a word or two of advice.

One day I was very upset and said to her, “You don’t care, because I need you to tell me what to do and you’re not helping.” She made the face that she always makes when she doesn’t care for my whining and when I go into the feel-sorry-for-me mood, and she said “You already told me the answer a few minutes ago. You’ll figure it out.” I spent the next week trying to see what the solution was while I was working on it unconsciously. That’s the main part of mentoring, where the real value is: allowing the person to answer their own questions, and giving them no space for self-pity.

She has also given me a few of her students to mentor, from classes of hers I attended during my supplemental instructor program at BMCC while I was still at Rutgers. That’s where I learned to be a mentor inside the classroom and outside. I know how it feels like to be both a mentee and mentor; you could say I’ve tasted the best of both worlds.

I had a great support system at home, where my mother mentored me on cultural life and how to be humane and my brother raised me and mentored me like a daughter, putting me through school and taking me to every networking event since I was thirteen. He’d even give me reading assignments for rewards like a MacDonald’s happy meal, a movie, or a trip to 42nd Street and Times Square. But that was a different kind of mentorship. Sometimes I avoid Margaret because she will tell me the same things my brother and mother would tell me. I thought at times that I could go to her to hear what I wanted, or that she would feel sorry for me when I was feeling sorry for myself, but that was never the case. The last time I was allowed to feel sorry for myself around Margaret was the first day I walked into her office, and I’m glad I enjoyed it.

Speaking of the update, I did do what I was supposed to the first time. At other times, I didn’t do everything she asked me to or use the resources she provided me with. And from time to time I would complain—more to escape my problems even though I knew I was capable of solving them. But she looked at me one day with the straightest face ever and said, “You will not come here to complain and whine anymore. You did that for a year.” I thought that wasn’t fair, and I disappeared for a week or two. When I showed up again, unannounced, of course the first thing she asked me at the door was, “Did you do this and that?” I gave her a blank look as I tried to figure out a lie. But before I could speak, she asked me to put my bag down to make sure I returned and then to go and take care of the thing. I left pissed off and disappointed, not because I had to take care of my responsibilities but because she didn’t care how I felt or why I didn’t do it.

Mentorship isn’t about being of service to a college, sending emails, advising students on classes, or telling them what to do. I believe it goes above and beyond these things. Mentorship isn’t about listening; it’s about hearing a person with the intention of understanding their needs. It’s psychological, emotional, unconditional, and effortlessly never-ending. It’s not just about listening to them, slapping something on paper, and then sending them off until next time; it’s about giving them resources and making sure they do their part. As a mentee, I was hungry to learn and grow but I didn’t know how to do so by myself. Someone other than my brother and mother saw something better in me and wanted to be by my side while I stumbled my way there.

I graduated from Borough of Manhattan Community College. I had no choice but to go for my bachelor’s degree, not with my mentors and other people by my side. My brother Mussa, who helped me with all my college applications, didn’t let my GPA define the kind of college I would attend. He helped me apply to all the out-of-state universities, including Ivy Leagues. I asked him, “Why should I apply to colleges I won’t be accepted to?” He looked at me and asked, “How do you know if you don’t try”? A month or two later, I received an acceptance letter from Rutgers, and then more from other universities. I was shocked. I read the first letter twice, folded it, and stuck it back in the envelope to wait for my brother to get home so he could read it too.

Margaret didn’t stop mentoring me after I graduated. She didn’t give up on me because I no longer attended BMCC. She didn’t stop checking up on me for the next two years. I was the one who disappeared after the third year because I stopped attending school for personal reasons. But I continued to answer her texts from here and there, telling her that school was ok every time she asked. After lying and randomly avoiding her for a while, I finally stop answering. But one day I got tired of my regret over not finishing my degree, and I sent her a text: “It’s been a long time, how are you?” She replied, “Are you still alive?” “Yes,” I texted back.  And that was the end of it. I was hoping the conversation would keep going, but it didn’t. I figured her goal was to let me have the last word and I felt she knew exactly what was going on. Guess what? She did.

After almost ten years of mentoring me, she asked me to join her on her journey. I didn’t hesitate. But I have asked myself until this day, why me? Of all the intelligent people and great connections, she has, she asked me. Why? Still a college student, with no money to invest and a business background. I asked, later on down the line, how I would live with myself if I let her down? I could no more let her down than I could my brother or my mother who is no longer with us. Most importantly, I do not give myself the option of letting myself down. I knew that I had to take this journey head on. I gave myself no plan B because it isn’t a matter of if it works. It’s a matter of when it works, because it will work.

The Brooklyn Granola business was born and launched in October 2018 as a healthy snack company owned and run by us together, as women of color. Our mentoring relationship has blossomed into mutual admiration, trust, genuine collaboration, and a strong business partnership.