On the morning of May 28, 2014, I had just settled in at my office and powered up my Mac. Each morning, the first item on my to-do list is to check my department’s Twitter account on HootSuite and my personal account on Tweetdeck. So there I was, about two minutes after settling in, when I realized “RIP Maya Angelou” was the morning’s trending topic. My chest sank and I couldn’t find air.
I let out an “Oh My God!” loud enough to alarm my coworker as I stormed out the office, unable to finish my thought: “Maya Angelou is..” Before I made it out the double doors of our reception area my tears were in full view. Outside, I completely broke down. Maya. God, why Maya? I remember wondering how a morning could be so beautiful when the pain I felt was so excruciating.
Maya was my first mentor. Through her words, she wrapped arms around me and taught me life lessons that were otherwise not immediately accessible or palpable. Some time during undergrad, and as a young single mother, I read Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting Merry Like Christmas and I felt my life changing. With each page, something in me transformed. I loved Maya because of her realness. Her story was anything but glamorous, like mine was shaping up to be, and that was the story I needed to read.
There’s a scene in the book where she contemplates suicide and realizes she is going crazy. When she visits another character in the book, Uncle Wilkie, he tells her to write down everything she has to be thankful for and she writes:
“I can hear
I can speak
I have a son
I have a mother
I have a brother
I can dance
I can sing
I can read
I can write”
And honey, did Maya write. And speak. And teach. And inspire. And for all of these things, I am forever grateful.
My friend and fellow doctoral intern, Jillian Martin, researches the importance of mentorship in student success. We have an ongoing joke between us when we witness (or fall victim to) the many failures of student life (e.g. email addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter profiles giving honor to God but timelines full of profanity). To which we respond: “Where’s your mentor?”
However, we in Higher Ed know that for some students, in particular first-generation or minority students, it can be challenging to establish meaningful mentor-mentee relationships. It wasn’t until I came to graduate school that I actively started to seek out mentors, mainly because I felt so alone, overwhelmed, and incapable of performing. I became desperate to find another woman of color who had experienced a similar journey and could speak to my experiences in the same way that Maya had, and whose story could affirm that there was something on the other side of my feelings of despair. Unfortunately that semester the only black and female faculty member in my college was on sick leave. Naturally, I turned to social media.
The good news about millennials and digital natives is that we are closer in reach to influencers than ever before. I used Twitter to follow and connect with Katrice Mines, editor of Atlanta Tribune magazine and founder of My Vicarious Life. After following her for months, I reached out via email and shared part of my story with her, then offered to take her out to lunch. While there, she shared words of encouragement that helped me refocus my doctoral studies (and dissuaded me from quitting my program). She also reminded me that the only difference between us was that she grew up with people constantly reminding her she could do great things.
Since that lunch, I’ve been able to follow and connect with several women who I refer to as “e-mentors.” Granted, the e-mentor-mentee relationship is not conventional and does not offer the same personalized attention and feedback as would a traditional relationship – but that doesn’t mean it offers little. I read timelines and textgrams and Facebook posts as if they are personal messages written to me, telling me that I can do greater. As a result, I have been inspired in so many ways by the women I follow.
I don’t know if we’ll ever have another Maya Angelou, but I do know that there are women, plenty of them, with something to say. They’re in graduate programs, healthcare, publishing, fashion, higher ed, beauty, and medicine, and they are sharing their lives and lessons online. All you have to do is find them, follow along, and receive their ministry.