In September last year, the French engineering school I graduated from (École Centrale de Lille) was looking for alumni to mentor first year students (actually in their third BASc year - maybe one day I’ll write about the French graduate system…).
The setup of this mentorship may look very artificial from the outside, but mentorship as we think of it nowadays doesn’t fit too well with French culture. We tend to have natural mentors like fathers, grandfathers, uncles or bosses. Exchanging regularly with someone who attended the same engineering school can definitely bring a different point of view. However, as I was saying, reaching out to an alumnus on your own will feel awkward to French people, so they rarely do it. The school’s match-making hence was necessary in our case.
I’m not sure how the pairing was done, but I think the mentees-to-be were given a little description of their potential mentors and selected a few that seemed to have interesting career paths. For the two mentees that picked me, I think the fact that I studied in Canada and now live Australia aroused their curiosity.
I tried to keep my approach simple. We met about once a month and I tried to talk as little as possible for the first half hour. I simply asked them to tell me about aspects of their student life (sports, volunteering, classes, projects, … I should add that they were locked down for most of the year because of Covid-19, so I did my best to be creative and suggest things they could do online to get involved in the many student clubs at the school. Talking about the bigger picture and making them picture the life they want when they graduate probably helped them turn their focus away from a sometimes gloomy day-to-day life in the pandemic.
Whenever I thought it could be useful, I shared a little bit of my experience. I attended Centrale Lille 10 years ago and I know things have changed. So I tried to provide a lot of context and then open up to a more general take away.
But the part I prefer is guiding the students to ask themselves some questions. In a way, I try to be the mentor I wish I had had at the same time in my life. I wouldn’t have wanted someone bragging about all the things they have done since graduating or explaining why such or such path is better. My goal is to help my mentees find the path that corresponds to what they want to do in the future. Their choices include internships (startup, big company, government agency, university lab?), their compulsory 6-month spent abroad (to study, work, do some volunteering?) and courses selection.
In my opinion, the first few months wereis first year was a success. My two mentees and I agreed to go on for another year and I’ll try to get an additional mentee. They are enjoying their summer break at the moment and in the meantime, I am working on identifying areas in which I can get better.