Column by Philip Day
It’s a strange word. The word is sometimes confused with those sea creatures known as “manatees.” Wikipedia defines a manatee as “large, fully aquatic marine mammals sometimes known as sea cows. The name comes from the Spanish manatí, which itself comes from a Carib word meaning ‘beast.’ ”
No, a “mentee” is not a marine mammal or a beast.
In fact, in that same Wikipedia a mentee is defined thusly: “The student of a mentor is called a protégé or mentoree or mentee.”
So, there you have it: the difference between a mentee and a manatee. No, I’m not trying to insult your intelligence. It’s just that when someone talks about the people mentors guide, the word ‘mentee,’ which I’ve always thought it was strange and can get lost in a myriad of meanings, some of which are not so accurate.
So, let’s delve a little deeper into this misunderstood term, especially when it comes to an adult working with youth.
For instance, many people would define a mentee as a “friend.” When someone is being mentored, particularly a young person, that definition is used. I would state categorically that this is wrong. A troubled young person who has a mentor needs someone who is above friendship. A friend is biased and may not always tell a mentee what they need to hear.
A mentee desperately needs a mentor who is above friendship. The “friendship bias” may let a mentee escape from being told right from wrong or that their poor habits – bad grades, undisciplined behavior, lack of focus, et cetera – should be changed. It’s not always easy to tell your friend that they should change their ways. Many times we avoid telling our friends what they need to hear fearing they will become offended, reject the advice and thus end the friendship.
So, if a mentee is not a friend of the mentor, what are they?
The Wikipedia definition use the term “protégé.” That term is defined as “a person guided and protected by a more prominent person.” The mentee depends on the mentor to show them the way and protect them from the mentee’s own destructive habits.
A mentee’s role is to learn from the mentor’s example. Any great mentorship draws a line on friendship. Just as it draws a line on loaning money, property or any other such item which could destroy a mentor-mentee relationship. (MentorMatch prohibits mentors giving property to the mentees.)
More than likely, the mentee already has friends of his own age in school or in the neighborhood or community. The mentee is also not looking for another friend. They’re looking for an adult who fills the need of a guide or a leader or a role model.
Some day, many years down the road the mentor and the mentee may become friends as they both will be adults and even peers. The role model part of mentoring, however, never changes as the mentee will always look to that special adult from their early years to show them the way, be available for advice and instruction and tell them what they need to hear.
I think of my own mentor from high school. I would never consider him a friend, but I would sure consider him a role model. He never crossed the line to become my friend when I was a teen-ager. I’m grateful for that, too. I imagine that if you had a mentor, you could say the same.
So, while I sit here and look at a photo of a manatee and know that you will never have a mentee who looks like that, I do know that your mentee, protégé, charge, apprentice, mentoree or whatever you may define them, will always be grateful that you never defined them as a friend.
Friends may come and go, but a mentor is there forever, even when they have long since left the scene.
Philip Day is the mentoring coordinator for MentorMatch Harrisonburg, a volunteer mentoring service provided by Lutheran Family Services of Virginia, which brings adult mentors together with foster care and juvenile justice youth for one year of supervised, traditional on-on-one mentoring. For more information visit the website, www.mentormatch.info. Call 540.437.1211 or e-mail [email protected] for more information.