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Club Alum Highlights the Importance of Growing Up with a Positive Mentor

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Read Vanessa T's piece featured in BGCA's Youth Voice blog about how growing up with a positive mentor from the Boys & Girls Club helped her achieve success.

In the spring of my junior year of high school, I found myself in the country of Panama climbing an inactive volcano at 4 a.m. with the woman who was about to solidify herself as my mentor

My fellow Boys & Girls Club peers and I were on a cultural immersion program. The week had been amazing – speaking my language, Spanish, but in an entirely different culture. Meeting new people and learning their traditions and saying “yes” to adventures like a sunrise hike up Volcán Barú, the tallest mountain in Panama, led by our advisor and chaperone Suriya Khong.

As we stood at the peak – where you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean on a clear day – Suriya said to me, “Vanessa, you can make anywhere your home.” She had seen me flourishing as a people person on this trip, happy to explore and embrace new things.

I was 17, on the precipice of all those life decisions: What to do after high school? Where to go to college? Who do I want to become? 

Suriya didn’t know at the time, but she’d given me the biggest compliment of my life: the concept of “home” had been unfamiliar to me lately, having moved to the United States from Cuba as a child and feeling so out of place, from the culture to the language. 

Her words made me realize something that was so innate to me, that I had never put words to: I could make anywhere my home. She inspired me to dream bigger – to consider going to college out of state and pursue an education that was based on curiosity, not familiarity.

And I can tell you this: I without a doubt would not be studying on a full-ride scholarship at an Ivy League college in New York City without my mentor Suriya.

Vanessa T. hiking in Panama

Finding My Youth Mentor

I met Suriya when I was in ninth grade and started doing volunteering projects with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties, where Suriya is currently the Vice President of Teen Initiatives. While our trip to Panama was the turning point where I recognized her as a mentor, I knew early on that she was someone to look up to, to turn to and to trust. She is warm and free-spirited, she’s open about her own imperfections, and she was always there for me, no matter what I was going through.

Mentors live in that interesting space between teacher and parent, and the expectations (and, let’s be honest, judgment) of your school and home life. Mentorship provides guidance with freedom. 

At first, I went to Suriya for ideas and suggestions – what to do next at the Club, how to get more involved in my interests. But soon I began to grasp the power of having a great mentor like Suriya to help me understand myself better. 

A great question to ask a mentor is: “What do you see in me that I should pursue?” So often as young people we don’t realize what we have in ourselves, and mentors help shine a light on our potential. When you feel lost, mentors hold up a mirror to you and remind you of who you are.

Good Mentors Listen More than They Advise

Suriya Khong and Vanessa T.

Suriya Khong and Vanessa T.

Often, we assume mentorship is about the mentee listening and receiving advice, but I think it’s the complete opposite. You don’t need a mentor who tells you what you’re feeling or guides you with the decisions they made in their own lives.

This relationship is your space so that YOU can think independently. A good mentor provides the type of silence that lets the mentee find the space to think and be able to speak. It’s in this space you can find your own words to express what you’re feeling.

A mentor doesn’t need to upturn your life and you shouldn’t want them to – they are there to be life-shaping, not life-changing. They are a home away from home, reminding you of your potential and standing beside you as you sort through your emotions, make decisions big and small, and become who you’re going to be.

And if you’re lucky, your mentor is a friend you’ll have for life. Now in my sophomore year at Barnard College I know exactly who to text when I’m wondering what to major in, how to make new friendships and what to do after college. 

And when I see Suriya’s name pop up on my phone, I know my mentor will do what she’s always done – see me, know me and remind me of all that I’m capable of.

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