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A window to the future: how mentoring has made me look beyond my five-year business plan - Felicity Parsons

It’s often said that young people are our future. Of course, that’s true and it’s vital that we invest in young people, giving them the education, training and support they need to reach their full potential.

But older people are the future too. We don’t stop working, innovating and contributing simply because we’re 40, 60 or 80. Sometimes, however, we can become a little set in our ways or too bogged down in current challenges to think beyond the next few years. And that’s one of the reasons why mentoring is a valuable experience for the mentor as well as the mentee – because it makes you think about the future.

Since the autumn of 2015, I’ve been volunteering with the Intergenerational Mentoring Network, a project based in the University of Strathclyde.

The project works with young people from the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland who wish to go on to higher education. The project pairs them with volunteer adult mentors, who often – but not necessarily – have professional experience relating to the careers their mentees wish to pursue.

During my time with the project, I’ve been working with a young man who hopes to study architecture. I’m not an architect myself; I’m a freelance writer and writing skills trainer. However, I’ve worked with architects throughout my 30-year career. Before I set up my own business in 2004, I worked for many years – as a secretary, then office manager, then as head of marketing and business development – for a large architectural practice in London.

Like many people who choose to become a mentor, my main motivation is a desire to make a positive difference to young people’s life chances. I’m all too aware that it’s challenging for young people from disadvantaged areas to progress to higher education – especially if they want to study for a profession at one of the leading universities. This isn’t right. And, of course, it’s not just a question of individual fairness; as a society, we need all our young people to have a chance to do well.

I’ve been able to support my mentee by arranging some work experience for him in an architect’s office, pointing him in the direction of opportunities such as the Glasgow School of Art’s brilliant widening participation portfolio class and encouraging him to think about various architectural ideas and theories. We’ve done some practical things together too – drawing practice and building visits.

Most importantly – in my view – I feel I was able to help him write a very strong personal statement for his UCAS application. I knew he had some interesting things to say and some interesting experiences to recount that were missing from the original draft of his statement. 

This has all paid off, as he received four offers from Scottish architecture schools and, having got his higher results, has been accepted at his university of choice.

Mentoring requires a degree of commitment – especially if the mentee is still at school. As I work for myself, it’s usually been quite easy for me to arrange to meet my mentee at the end of the school day. However, this can be tricky when you’re working, and it’s probably not surprising that many of my fellow mentors are retired.

However, there are plenty of opportunities for people who can’t commit to a full mentoring role to become involved in the project. For example, it’s really useful for a young person wanting to study –say – law, journalism or engineering, to have a chance to meet a variety of people working in that field.

As well as having the satisfaction of seeing my mentee grow in confidence and developing his ideas about architecture, I’ve also learnt a lot from being a mentor. Because I do quite a lot of one-to-one coaching with professional people, it’s been particularly interesting for me to adapt my usual methods to work with a young person who’s still at school. But – returning to my original theme – perhaps one of the greatest benefits has been having an impetus to look to the future. 

Since I started work over thirty years ago, the practice of architecture has changed in many ways. By the time my mentee qualifies as an architect, the profession will have changed further. And by the time he’s my age, the changes will be greater still.

That’s a long way ahead, but – who knows? – I may still be working then; I don’t plan to retire unless I have to. Therefore, it’s been invaluable for me to think about how the field I work in and the services I offer may change in the future.

No-one can be sure what the world will be like in 30 years’ time, but trying to imagine some of the possibilities can only make us more creative, adaptable and resilient.

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