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A helping hand

Students, faculty, and staff make valuable connections through mentoring relationships at Transylvania and beyond

By Lori-Lyn Hurley and William A. Bowden

Whether walking with a student down a pathway of study or lending support during the first years of a new career, a mentor serves as a counselor, an ally, and a trusted friend. The close-knit Transylvania community provides fertile ground for the growth of such relationships.

It is not uncommon for students, faculty, and staff to develop connections that continue well beyond the four years of a Transylvania education. What begins in the classroom often develops into a partnership that thrives in the larger world.

The following stories illustrate some of the ways in which these mentoring relationships can have a profound effect on both parties.


LAURA EDGINGTON AND EVA CSUHAI

Eva Csuhai and Laura EdgingtonDuring her four years at Transylvania, Laura Edgington ’06 went from a quiet, somewhat shy first-year student looking for encouragement to a confident young scholar now about to begin her graduate studies in the Ph.D. program in cancer biology at Stanford University. Her goal is a career as a research scientist.

Although other professors and friends were very supportive, Edgington credits chemistry professor Eva Csuhai with being a mentor who helped her develop as a student and a person by becoming not only her academic adviser, but also a friend and confidant.

Their relationship began in a chemistry class, when Edgington readily admits to being somewhat intimidated by Csuhai at first.

“When I had Dr. Csuhai for general chemistry my first year, she was all business in class,” Edgington said. “But as I got to know her, I found she had a wonderful sense of humor and was very warm and compassionate. She’s very honest and will always tell you exactly what she thinks.”

Csuhai would eventually help Edgington build her confidence, select her major, identify summer research programs, and apply to graduate school. They still keep in touch as Edgington, currently working on a research project in the Department of Gastroenterology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, prepares to begin graduate school at Stanford this fall.

Edgington came to Transylvania as a William T. Young scholar, so she knew she was intelligent enough to do well in her studies. But shouldering the expectations of being the first in her immediate family to attend college, along with her growing up on a farm near a small town in northern Kentucky, left her in need of someone to both challenge and encourage her.

“All of the chemistry professors who watched me grow and mature during my time at Transy got on me later about how I was such a quiet, meek student and not so confident when I first came in,” Edgington said.

After getting to know her outside of class, Csuhai sensed that Edgington could benefit from some encouraging words. “She seemed like the kind of person who would find it easy to let others take charge and do the talking,” Csuhai said. “It was a rapid transition for Laura to go from her farm life, where she worked with animals a lot, to a very demanding academic life at Transylvania. She needed someone to tell her that this is possible, that you can do it.”

As Edgington progressed in her science courses, she found many opportunities during labs to talk informally with Csuhai. “We had a lot of times where we were standing around waiting for a reaction to occur, and we would talk and get to know each other,” said Edgington. “I think that’s how she first took an interest in me.”

Edgington initially was going to major only in biology, but Csuhai influenced her decision to add a second major in chemistry. “She helped me get excited about chemistry,” Edgington said. “She challenged me as much or more than any of the professors I had, which is something I needed and thrived on.” As it turned out, with her interest in biomedicine, the double major is giving Edgington the perfect preparation for her graduate studies and career in research.

Csuhai also pushed Edgington to consider the value of summer research programs if she was serious about graduate school. She eventually completed programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (where she was also accepted for graduate studies, along with Harvard University) and at Stanford. “Dr. Csuhai worked with me at every step along the way in finding those summer programs and choosing graduate schools to apply to,” Edgington said.

Mentoring by example, and having the chance to share some personal information with her students, is an advantage that Csuhai feels is especially evident at a small college like Transylvania. She wanted to reassure Edgington that women can make it in a field where men still significantly outnumber them. “I want my students to see how a female professional handles the role of a chemist,” she said. “They can see that I have a family, I have kids to worry about, I have my personal issues, but here I am doing my job.”

Looking back on her Transy years, Edgington realizes the important role that Csuhai played, not just in the particulars of major selection, applications, and letters of recommendation, but also in the larger sense of helping her envision what her life could be.

“Dr. Csuhai identified my talent in science and encouraged me to pursue it. She recognized that I had what it took to be a good researcher. She also knows what it’s like to be a woman in science, and offered me a lot of insight. She gave me the confidence in myself so that I knew I could do it.”


SARA WELLS FRANCIS AND BEN HAWKINS

Now in her fifth year of teaching in the Fayette County, Ky., school system, Sara Wells Francis ’00 aims to give her students the power to learn through experience and introspection, a calling she answered as a result of her relationship with music professor Ben Hawkins. “It was through his subtle coaching and support that I realized I had a mission to enrich young lives through music education,” she said.

Sara Francis and Ben Hawkins

The two first met when Francis auditioned for a music scholarship as a senior in high school. During her four years as a student at Transy, Francis and Hawkins worked together closely, and after her graduation, they continued to keep in touch.

“At first his guidance was primarily on a musical and academic basis, but as time progressed, I found myself stopping by his office just to have a conversation,” Francis said. “When my father became gravely ill during my sophomore year, I sat in the chair by Dr. Hawkins’ desk and cried. When I became engaged to my husband, John, at the end of my senior year, I sat in the same chair and beamed.”

Francis said that Hawkins was quick to recognize who she was and what she was looking for in a college education. “He just seemed to understand me,” she said. “I now recognize that sort of quick insightfulness as a hallmark of a great educator.”

While Francis was completing her master of music at Northwestern University, the relationship grew into a two-way exchange. “Fields change over time,” Hawkins said. “Chatting with Sara when she was in graduate school plugged me into classroom techniques that I wasn’t aware of. She’s very creative, and that stimulates my thinking.”

Hawkins benefited from a similar relationship earlier in his life and sees mentoring as a way of carrying on that tradition. His college band director, James Sudduth, for whom Hawkins named his oldest son, served as his mentor, and Sudduth’s portrait hangs on the wall of Hawkins’ office as a reminder of the relationship they shared. “Without him,” Hawkins said, “I certainly don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing.”

He feels mentoring relationships are necessary and remind professors of the need to communicate with students beyond academic subject matter. “It’s important to remember that you’re teaching a human being and there’s always an emotional component,” he said.

It’s a concept that Francis, who teaches music at Edythe J. Hayes Middle School, makes central to her work. One of the lessons she learned from Hawkins is to never assume the subject matter she is teaching is more important than the students.

“I wrote in a class journal once that I was going to teach each of my future students as if they might one day be professional musicians,” she said. “In the margin, Dr. Hawkins wrote, ‘Why would you do this?’ I didn’t understand at first, but the next day I had an epiphany in class when Dr. Hawkins explained that the role of a music teacher is often less about note reading and tone production than it is about guiding students to become better human beings.”

As a student of Hawkins, Francis says she always felt that she arrived at understanding without being spoon fed. In turn, she carries this attitude into her classroom. “Dr. Hawkins guided our learning by arming us with the essential and practical information and then gave us the means to act, reflect, and assimilate knowledge,” she said. “Like him, I try to be a coach and facilitator, not just a pedagogue.”

Hawkins is quick to point out that while he may detect hints of their work together in Francis’ teaching, she is an individual. “There’s so much of what she brings to her teaching that doesn’t have anything to do with what I taught her,” he said. “We have much in common, but her approach is different from my own.”

Hawkins is reluctant to take credit for Francis’ success as a musician and teacher. “I certainly don’t fool myself into thinking she wouldn’t have been just as successful whether she’d met me or not,” he said. But Francis cites Hawkins as a major influence in her life and work.

“He knows my history, and I always feel I can count on him for sound, sincere advice,” she said. “When I have a victory or a quandary, whether it is professional or personal, I know that he is never more than a phone call or an e-mail away. Essentially, he is still my mentor, but I consider him to be a lifelong friend.”

Recently, Francis embarked on her own journey as a mentor—she now has her first student teacher. “The responsibility of helping someone find their way as an educator is somewhat overwhelming,” she said, “but also very exciting.”


TIM MEKO AND BARBARA GRINNELL

Tim Meko ’06, a graduate student at the Ohio University School of Visual Communications, credits a relationship that began at Transylvania for providing the springboard he needed to embark on his graduate studies. Since his graduation, Meko has kept in touch with his mentor, Barbara Grinnell, graphic designer in Transy’s publications office.

It is a friendship that continues to flourish as Meko pursues a master’s degree in newsroom graphic management, and he and Grinnell provide feedback for one another’s work.

Tim MEko and Barbara Grinnell

Recently, Meko called Grinnell to ask for help with a class project for which he needed to work for a client. The client turned out to be Transy when Grinnell gave Meko the opportunity to design a poster for a campus film series.

“Barbara is my go-to person to ask advice about design,” Meko said. “I send her all of my work before it’s due so that she can critique it.”

The dialogue between Meko and Grinnell began in May of Meko’s junior year when Transy purchased one of his photographs, a panoramic print of Times Square that caught the eye of the publications office. The next year, both Meko and the publications staff saw an opportunity for a mutually beneficial relationship.

Meko began in a work-study position with publications, working closely with Grinnell. “It was his photography that initially grabbed my attention,” she said. “I had no idea of his interest in design.”

It turned out that Meko had a background in computer science and graphics, knowledge that led to an atypical work-study experience. “Usually, with my work-study students, I turn them on to the bare essentials of layout,” Grinnell said. “Tim was able to work with me on my designs and complete projects on his own.”

As the two became more comfortable with one another, their relationship grew. “We would have mini brainstorming sessions where we would sit and work out an idea,” Meko said, “and we also talked about things that weren’t necessarily related to school or work.”

Grinnell found her work-study student to be proactive and motivated. “Working with Tim was like working with a colleague,” she said. “He had a mature outlook and was willing to be an equal.” They worked together for one academic year that culminated with Meko participating in a series of shadowships that Grinnell helped coordinate.

At Transy, the advice that Meko received from Grinnell ranged from technical details to broader concepts. She encouraged Meko to work on his typography skills, for example, and suggested he edit his photographs before turning them in for an assignment.

“She told me that instead of handing over every single frame I shot, which could get up to 300 images sometimes, that I should narrow them down to my favorite 10-15 images. This way, a client would only see the best shots of the event instead of all of the ‘almost there’ images.”

She also talked to him about the concept of learning itself. “Barbara taught me that learning about everything you can really gives you a leg up in the real world,” Meko said. “She encouraged me to take advantage of all the opportunities that Transy offered— lectures and presentations—because the more you know, the more marketable you are.”

Grinnell found that she learned from Meko, too. He passed on knowledge about using Photoshop software, for example. “Working with him reawakened my interest in photography,” she said.

Looking back, Meko said his work with Grinnell taught him to think in different ways. “It taught me how to think as a part of the real world,” he said. “My work ethic grew, as did my experience, and I became better at communicating my ideas.”

Thinking differently was something Grinnell gained from the relationship as well. “Since Tim didn’t know a lot of the design rules, he ended up breaking them in very creative ways,” she said. “Seeing that helped me loosen the restrictions I had set for myself.”

Ultimately, what Meko found in his relationship with Grinnell was a sense of place in the Transy community. “She was someone I could always bounce ideas off of, and talk to about anything from politics to television,” he said. “I don’t think anybody else on campus knew as much about me and my life as Barbara did.”

That friendship continues to grow as Meko works toward a career in design. “The kind of work we do now is very different,” Grinnell said, “but we continue to provide feedback for one another.”

Produced by Office of Publications three times a year