Remembering Maya: Where’s Your Mentor?

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.

maya-angelou-quotes-2I 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 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.


4 thoughts on “Remembering Maya: Where’s Your Mentor?

  1. Pingback: The Problem with Perfectionism | The Black Girl Movement

  2. Pingback: Another note about mentors… | The Black Girl Movement

  3. Why couldnt a mentor be white? Get out of isolating yourself in blackness. Open your mind. Stop being afraid of white people. You may be more alike than you think. Blacks and whites will never come together if blacks isolate themselves from whites because they are afraid. I was born and grew up in a house without running water, no toilet, no shower or bathtub and for many years no refrigerator. Our freezer was an outside shelf where we kept our meat for dinner in the winter. In summer we used block ice. I earned a Masters degree and married a college president. You can overcome. But not if you isolate from others. I was raised in the South and received many disrespects from people- black and white. That did not stop me. With the support and help from several good people, I finished my education. I worked hard for it. Only the chance was given. If i had been afraid i would not have made it. Dont be afraid! They are not going to eat you nor kill you.

    • Kathryn — Thanks for taking the time out to read and comment on my post. To your point, know that I had *several* White mentors who helped me along my journey. SEVERAL. And we are all very much still in contact and speak regularly today. However, it’s important to know that race and class are two very different social identities and no matter your upbringing, your White privilege prevents you from even understanding my need to be in community with other Black women. You will NEVER have access to the experience of racism and how that impacts one’s career and upbringing on myriad levels. In my opinion, we need several mentors for our multifaceted lives, and this posts speaks to how I was able to fill an important void.

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