Mentors and mentoring

Kirrilee Hughes. Photo courtesy of The Canberra Times.

Kirrilee Hughes officially received her PhD in Asian Studies, during a conferring of awards ceremony at Llewellyn Hall, The Australian National University, on Thursday 17 July.

The occassion included 200 College of Asia and the Pacific graduates.

As a guest speaker, Dr Hughes spoke of the importance of mentoring.

She was presented with a Bachelor of Asian Studies (Indonesian), with First Class Honours, ten years earlier. In 2003 she also obtained the University Medal.

Below is a transcript of Kirrille's speech.

Today’s celebrations provide an opportunity for us to pause and reflect on our life journeys thus far and to consider what the future holds. Some of us are already working in Australia or perhaps overseas; others are navigating the daunting process of graduate recruitment here in Canberra or their home cities. Others are weighing up future postgraduate studies and others may still be contemplating their next step - a position I found myself in ten years ago when I graduated from my honours degree in this very hall.

Our ANU degrees will take us some part of the way along this journey - but a degree isn't just the piece of paper you received on the stage today. Rather it is the sum of your time here at ANU: the knowledge you've acquired, the experiences you've had and the friends and mentors you've met and made along the way.

As the first in my family to complete a university degree—a position that many of you can relate to—I could have easily found myself lost during my university studies. Had I chosen the right degree? Would it lead to a job? And was it all worth the investment? I lacked the confidence and experience to navigate the challenges and opportunities with which I was faced.

But this inexperience and lack of confidence also worked in my favour—as it can for you too as you face the next step in your life journey. It was precisely my inexperience and lack of confidence that forced me to seek out a mentor to guide me through my university studies and beyond.

The word 'mentor' comes to us from the ancient Greek myth of Odysseus. Odysseus' son, Telemachus, was struggling with the long absence of his travel-loving father whilst his family home was besieged by crude men vying for the attention of his mother, who had locked herself away. With limited help from his parents Telemachus lacked confidence and experience and he was uncertain about his future.

The goddess Athena took the form of an old man from Ithaca whose name was 'Mentor'. Mentor guided Telemachus; encouraging him to track down his father's whereabouts and supporting him through this process. Experience and confidence were thus seeded in the young Telemachus; gifts that were all important for his future.

In our world today, mentors are no less important in providing guidance during uncertain times and helping us to succeed. Like the ancient Greek character of Mentor, modern day mentors are a crucial, human link between experience and inexperience; confidence and uncertainty. A key feature of mentorship is face-to-face communication which is important to acknowledge as our networks increasingly become online and virtual.

Damon Young has written that mentors differ significantly from our parents, teachers and role models. A good mentor has the emotional distance which our parents lack but also the immediate proximity which is often absent in our role models. In this way, a good mentor is easily accessible and our communication with them is two-way. They provide personalised advice which distinguishes them from teachers whose primary task is to transmit knowledge and information en masse. One can be a great teacher to many classes of students, but a mentor to none.

I feel honoured today to share this stage with one of my mentors: Emerita Professor Virginia Hooker. Virginia mentored me through my undergraduate studies and played a key role in supporting my decision to return to ANU after several years in the workforce. More recently, her mentorship has been channelled through her role as one of my PhD supervisors; advising and guiding me through the course of my research, through the all-important examination process and in my post-PhD career.

For this, I know that I do not owe Virginia a debt; rather I accept a responsibility to act as a mentor to others who, as I did, lack the experience and confidence to navigate the decisions, challenges and opportunities they face in their life journeys. This is something I have tried to do for my students in my role as a tutor in the College of Asia & the Pacific, some of whom have graduated today.

I would also like to take a moment to remember another of my mentors—Tracy McCabe— who was my first boss and who guided me in the early stages of my professional career. Tracy passed away in January 2011 from breast cancer and I still miss her special brand of mentorship. The best way to counter my sense of loss, however, is to ensure that I too mentor my junior colleagues in my current and future workplaces.

Graduates, perhaps you too have lost someone or something important to you during your studies and I encourage you to pause for a moment today to remember them and their legacy.

As you face the next stage of your life journey, I urge you to recognise when you lack experience and confidence and at these times of uncertainty, to seek out a mentor. And when you feel confident and experienced yourself, I encourage you to recognise that it’s now time to act as a mentor to others.






Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team