My Experience with Mentorship

Written by: Michelle Montgomery

What career do I want to have when I grow up? That's a question many young people around the world ask themselves. Michelle Montgomery owes her start in chemistry to her teacher – and eventually became a mentor herself.

Pic 1When I was a junior in high school, I was struggling to figure out what career I wanted to pursue. I had an artistic side that craved creativity and an analytical side that needed organization and order. I remember my lightbulb moment like it was yesterday. I was sitting in my AP (advanced placement) Chemistry class and asked a “what if…” question about our lab assignment. My teacher, instead of giving me the answer, responded with, “Go find out.” This encouragement to explore and creatively think on my own helped me to realize that I wanted to keep exploring the “what ifs” in my daily job – and that’s what started me on my way to a career in chemistry.

I think of this AP Chemistry teacher as the first in a steady stream of mentors that have helped me to develop into the person I am today. As I have grown into myself, I have been lucky to have many role models to look towards for support, who I truly felt cared about my success. In college, it was my advisor who helped me secure research and other opportunities, while also showing me an example of what a powerful woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) can look like. During my undergraduate research, it was a grad student who encouraged me to apply for an internship at Covestro after they listened to my interests and concerns about life after college. At Covestro, it’s the amazing female leaders that have led by example, influencing me to pursue my graduate degree and take on more responsibility.

Without these influential mentors and coaches in my life, my path could have looked a lot different. I am lucky to have had so much support – and that is why I try my very best to provide the same support to the next generation of female leaders!

Representation matters. When young people are able to see someone that looks like them in a career, they are more likely to think of that career as accessible.  It’s important to connect young girls to leaders that look like them much earlier in life: to expose them to a variety of careers and show them that they have the power to be leaders themselves. With more exposure to mentors and leaders in various industries, these girls are much more likely to have their own lightbulb moment and build amazing connections that will help them succeed.  

How do I Mentor?

Currently, most of my mentoring is through an organization called Strong Women Strong Girls (SWSG). SWSG aims to connect elementary aged girls to college mentors, and these to professional mentors, to foster a network of support for all ages and experience levels. Within SWSG, I volunteer as a one-on-one mentor, where I am matched to a college-aged woman each semester and am available for support, whatever that might entail! Sometimes, support means helping with resume building or professional development, but other times it simply means being available to meet for a coffee and to act as a sounding board for challenges the mentee might be experiencing. I truly love meeting these amazing women and seeing how bright their futures are, and it is rewarding to think that I might be able to contribute in some way to their success.

I have also been participating in a second program through SWSG called Role Models in Residence. This program involves creating a lesson plan and then teaching a group of elementary aged girls about my career. In my case, I typically prepare some science experiments for the girls, to show them how fun STEM can be. We have made polymer worms, slime, homemade ice cream and so much more! I like to start my lesson by asking the girls if any of them have considered being a scientist when they grow up, which normally does not result in many raised hands. I ask the same question after our session and always get a few enthusiastic “YES’s,” which is all I could ever ask for.

This past year I also started volunteering as a mentor through the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s LAUNCH program. LAUNCH aims to transform the natural curiosity of high school girls into a voice of leadership in STEM. I participated as a panelist during their kickoff, along with some amazing female leaders in STEM in the Pittsburgh area. The high school girls were encouraged to ask questions about our career journeys, and we got the chance to speak honestly and openly about being a woman in STEM, as well as our best practices for success. Beyond the panel session, I also participated in one-on-one mentoring later during the LAUNCH program and was available for virtual mentoring sessions through the Latitude portal.

What has mentoring meant to me?

I have grown so much personally while participating in these mentorship opportunities. There are so many incredible young women out there that are destined to make a huge impact on their communities. I have gained insight into perspectives and backgrounds much different than my own, listened as girls share their own personal struggles and goals, and have come out of it as a much more empathetic and open person. I’ve also discovered that a lot of the tools I have learned in my life are not specific to my education or career. Some of the most impactful learnings I can share with future leaders are related to stress management, navigating imposter syndrome, and just coping with being a young person in a big, scary world!

I remember feeling nervous to ask mentors for guidance when I needed support, feeling like I was adding to their plate. I also remember how that fear melted away when a mentor would eagerly ask me how they could help, because I knew they genuinely cared. Now, I get to be that person! Every time I think I have hit my limit on how I can contribute and mentor in my community, another opportunity presents itself, and I just can’t help myself. If my bandwidth allows, I will always be open and excited to help our next generation of leaders in whatever way needed. It never feels like an obligation – it’s an opportunity to raise girls up, show them how amazing they already are, and help them to succeed.

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