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Inside Look at RCE Mentorship Program

The RCE Mentorship program was created in 2019, and was designed to connect students from across the Greater Atlanta area with a variety of mentors from industry, non-profits, and academic backgrounds. With 12 active pairs today, the mentorship program has created numerous connections between young and experienced professionals. The program runs on a semester basis, with the option to renew at the end of each term, to create as many networking opportunities as possible.

In an interview featuring Kris Chatfield and Meg Sanders, a mentor/mentee pair at Georgia Tech, they give an inside look at the details of the mentorship program, and how their involvement as a pair has affected their professional lives.

Tell me a little bit about yourselves.

Meg: My name is Margaret Sanders, but I go by Meg, and I’m a master of sustainable energy and environmental management student.

Kris: My name is Kris Chatfield, and I’m the Program and Operations Manager for SLS, which is Georgia Tech’s Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS) program.

How did you get involved with RCE Greater Atlanta?

Meg: I got involved with the RCE mentorship program my junior year at my undergrad institution, which was the University of Connecticut. I had a very specific goal in mind–I knew I wanted to move to Atlanta after I graduated and get involved in sustainability. And so I started Googling Atlanta sustainability groups and I found the RCE.

Kris: I got involved because Georgia Tech is a founding institution for the RCE, so I've actually been a member and involved in the RCE since its inception because Jenny Hirsch (director of SLS) was one of the three founders who actually wrote and submitted the application and got the RCE started.

How did you get involved with the Mentorship Program?

Meg: I signed up to be on the [RCE] email list and a couple weeks later, I got an email informing me about the mentor-mentee program and I thought it was perfect. And in between, I'd found the Georgia Tech program that I'm in now and I thought, I really want to do this program. So all these things started aligning for me and I signed up to be a mentee. Then they offered the list [of mentors] and mentees got first choice, so we got to pick who we wanted. So I was looking through and I saw Kris and saw that she worked for Georgia Tech and I was like, this is perfect. She's in Serve-Learn-Sustain, and that's exactly the kind of work I want to be doing. So I picked her and that’s how we got matched up, and that's how I got involved in the program.

Kris: I actually signed up for the mentorship program almost from the very beginning. I had one mentee first, a student from Emory, and we met twice I think. But she I think didn't really know what she wanted out of the mentorship program. And you know, it just didn't really go anywhere, which was fine. I mean, that happens. You know, every six months they ask you, do you want to continue? Do you not want to continue? Do you want to continue but have a different mentor? They ask you all these questions. So I opted definitely to continue. But I think that student ended up dropping out of the program. Then, I got matched with Meg and it was a perfect match.

What is the process for getting involved with the Mentorship Program?

Kris: From a mentor standpoint, they send an email out once every six months or so, and if you’re new you indicate that you’d like to be involved as a mentor. You fill out a profile that gets posted online that looks similar to a resume, so when the students go to sign up for a mentor, they can see who’s available and what professional mentors match their interests or goals.

Meg: So for mentees it was pretty similar; they sent out a form to tell them a little bit about ourselves and our studies. You indicate what you’re looking for in a mentor, like what topics or subjects you’re looking to get guidance on, and I put graduate school and early professional experience. Once they sent out the acceptance to the mentees, they sent us all the list of available mentors for us to look through their backgrounds, skill sets, where they worked…and for me, I looked at their job location the most. If I wanted to join the Georgia Tech Masters program, the perfect person would probably be working in sustainability at Georgia Tech, and that’s how I ended up selecting Kris and started meeting with her.

Kris: And once they match you, it’s really up to you to figure out how often and when you want to meet. We obviously had to be virtual because she [Meg] was in Connecticut and I was in Atlanta, but we would have a standing call every other week for 30 minutes.

What were you looking to get out of the program when you first got involved?

Meg: I wanted someone who had a lot of professional experience in general, you know, someone who had experience in a couple different fields. I was also looking for someone who had experience in sustainability in Atlanta, and Kris fit the mold perfectly. Another thing I’d gotten involved in from the RCE e-mailing list was a short course I took out of Georgia Tech. It was February of 2021, and it was an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) course co-taught by Ruthie Yow and Jenny Hirsch through SLS, and I fell in love with it completely…and so when Kris and I first met I told her about this class I had taken, and she mentioned Jenny is her boss, and my head exploded I was so excited! It was perfect. Kris was everything I was looking for in a mentor and I learned so much.

Kris: I just think it’s a really great program. I love working with the students at Georgia Tech, and so I thought it was a perfect opportunity to get to know a student or a young professional–and my purpose in doing it is really to have it be mentee-led. I want to serve in whatever capacity the mentee needs. Everybody has a different goal when they’re entering the program in terms of what they’re looking for in a professional mentor, so I really let Meg take the lead on that, and it morphed in a few different directions.

How has your relationship evolved since your involvement in the Mentorship Program?

Kris: Well, we had been in this mentor/mentee relationship for almost a year and then last February, we were teaching the ABCD class again, and Meg kept talking about it from when she took the online course. Since the course has a different theme each time it's offered, I told Meg she should take it again and come stay at my house, which she did…and one of the other things we did was I encouraged her to apply for SLS’s summer internship program. She moved down here in May after graduation and lived with our family for the whole summer until she started her graduate program in August. As a professional mentor, it was really rewarding to know about these opportunities that she may not have known about and kind of guide her towards them. A lot of these opportunities Meg completely earned on her own, but just being able to mentor her through the process and point her in those directions was a really good part of our relationship.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned from working with one another?

Kris: Meg is very intentional in her plans and she would come to our meetings with specific ideas in mind. “These are my questions….this is what I want to know from you.” Even when she was working on her personal statement for graduate school we would talk about it and line out goals for the next time we met. For me, it was a great learning experience about the journey of applying to grad school and all the things she was going through. I certainly learned a lot from her, and I would take that process with me to another mentee relationship.

Meg: I would say Kris taught me how to make a lot of difficult decisions and how to weigh my options in those instances, like picking a grad program, picking where I’m going to live, my next steps as a young professional. We listed a lot of pros and cons, and we had a lot of difficult conversations about those types of things. She really helped me listen to myself, and helped me be able to sit down with myself and figure out what I see for myself and my future. It was really helpful being able to talk to someone who’s wise and who’s lived a joyous life. I would ask, “Do you see this choice aligning with the path that I want and the things I want to see for myself?”. Sometimes the answer was no. Not all of the answers I got were the answers that I wanted, but that was one of the most important parts, you know, was listening to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Taking that for what it is and just learning how to make responsible, clear, good decisions for myself and having someone help me along that journey was really crucial to get me where I am now. Kris was a crucial step in that fight.

Kris: I also think in this kind of relationship I have no dog in the fight–I’m not her parent, I’m not a professor, and I’m not anybody who has alternative goals. I was someone who could look at that kind of stuff a lot more objectively and actually give her objective advice. I gave my true thoughts about our conversations without worrying about anything external. She was getting a lot of opinions and a lot of advice, but I felt like I could be someone that was more objective and help her look at the actual pros and cons and kind of take some of the emotion out of it.

What direction do you see the Mentorship Program heading in?

Kris: I would love to see someone who could take over running the mentorship program in the long term and really help it grow. Since its inception, there’s been a professional person that has been overseeing it, but it’s mostly been student run, and I think it’s hard because students transition in and out. It would be great if we had more networking opportunities for the mentors and mentees, because students are looking for that, and it would be a great way to advance the mentorship program itself. Overall, I would love to see it grow, because I think it has so much value.

Meg: I agree completely. Speaking from a mentee perspective, I wish more students and more of my peers took advantage of opportunities like this. None of us really know exactly what our next steps are…we’re looking for help, but no one really knows who to ask for help. Students can get mentorships and relationships like this, if they knew how to ask for help and where to look for it. So I would love to see more students get the benefits that I got from this program. I hope the mentorship program can get publicized more because I think students need to take opportunities like this more seriously and actually look into them. As students, we get upwards of 10 emails a day from Georgia Tech, but most students don’t look into them. I wish students took it a little bit more seriously because they underestimate the benefits that you can get from a program like this.