Way back in 1974, I was a Senior at Bloom Township High School in Chicago Heights, IL. I did pretty well academically, graduating in the top 2% of my class. I worked part time jobs prior to starting work on a degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois. In the fall of my Senior year at Bloom, my counselor and one of my teachers had nominated me for something called the Pullman Scholarship. I had never heard of it. [www.pullmanfoundation.org]
No one in my family had ever gone to college. Neither of my parents had a high school diploma, although they both read a lot. I think I had one older cousin who might have gone to Junior college. Most of my friends’ parents had not gone to college, either. The college application process and obtaining scholarships was new to all of us. So, when I had my interview with two men I had never met before representing the Pullman Foundation, I had no idea what to expect. I just tried to be respectful and tell them what little I knew about my plans to go to college. I’m sure I told them I wanted to go to college to study Electrical Engineering (even though I had no idea what an Electrical Engineer did). Today, I don’t remember any of the questions they may have asked. The underlying truth for me was: ” I want to go to college so I can get a job”. It was really that simple. I was good at math and science and I heard that if you were good at math and science then you could probably study engineering. Most importantly, you could get a job if you had a degree in engineering. That’s all I really needed to know. I knew no one who was an engineer, I didn’t know what they did, and I didn’t know if I would like it. I probably could have used a mentor, but that was another concept that was foreign to my peer group. In spite of that shortcoming, I was awarded a Pullman Scholarship. The award covered the cost of most of my annual tuition. I was also an Illinois State Scholar. Between working full time in the summer and part time in the University Food Services (Cafeteria) during the school year, I was able to graduate without any debt. I also graduated without any money, but I did have multiple offers and a job when I graduated. I still had to buy new clothes, a car, first and last month’s deposit on an apartment …… As Groucho Marx would say “I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty”. But seriously, I had attained my dream of a good job with a bright future.
Fast forward 40 years. I had been a regular donor to the Pullman Educational Foundation. I figured it was the least I could do. Then, I got yet another award from the Foundation. I volunteered and was accepted to help select the next generation of Pullman Scholars. If you ever lose hope about the next generation, all you need to do is talk to a few of these scholar candidates. All these candidates have demonstrated more leadership skills, extra curricular and scholarship achievement than I ever had. I have heard stories of incredible determination and hard work. Besides that theme, I hear a lot about the influence parents, teachers, and one or more mentors have had on these students’ lives. It is very difficult to build a completely new life if you don’t know what that looks like or how to get there. Now that I have done a dozen interviews over the last 3 years, I am more convinced than ever of the value a mentor can have in the success of the next generation.
After each interview, I have come away so pumped up about making the kind of impact on some student that each has experienced from one of their mentors. If you want to feel really great, I would encourage any one reading this to find one of those mentoring opportunities. It might be as a coach in one of your favorite sports. If that is your thing, remember that the kids you coach may only play for a few years, but what you teach them about life beyond the sport will guide their lives forever. Integrity, teamwork, respect for your team mates and your opponents – focus on those things as well as the Xs and Os. Whatever your career, show some young person the ropes and see if they might like it. Teach them about the business aspects. Teach them the importance of showing up on time – all the time. Teach them to under promise and over deliver. Help some young student learn to read. Try tutoring someone in your favorite subject. If nothing else, your enthusiasm might carry them over the hump. If if you do it right, you will get more out of it than they will!
The Lone Rider