January is National Mentoring Month, an annual celebration of the powerful role mentors play in helping young people across the U.S. shape and achieve their aspirations, every day of every month.
While mentoring can benefit all youth, research indicates that it can be especially powerful for those who face barriers to education, training and employment, including people with disabilities and other historically underserved populations. As such, mentoring is a key dimension of our Office of Disability Employment Policy’s (ODEP) work to prepare youth with disabilities for the workforce. For instance, mentoring is included in ODEP’s Guideposts for Success youth policy framework, which describes educational and career interventions that research shows have a positive impact on the employment outcomes of youth with disabilities.
A highlight of National Mentoring Month each year is “Thank Your Mentor Day.” In honor of this event, five ODEP staff members recently took a moment to reflect on mentors who made a significant impact on them as they began and advanced in their careers.
Ben Cheriyan, Policy Advisor
A mentor I’d like to thank is Dr. Vandana Chaudhry, a professor I had when I was a graduate student completing my master’s in social work with a concentration in disability studies. I had Dr. Chaudhry for two courses and also had the opportunity to assist her with a research project that examined disability policies across different countries. It was through this project in particular that Dr. Chaudhry had a significant impact, because she exposed me to career paths I wasn’t previously aware existed. Looking back, it was the start of my career in disability policy. Her impact went beyond the subject matter, though. Like me, Dr. Chaudhry has a vision impairment, and I benefitted greatly from her guidance on navigating the work environment with my disability. As just one example, she taught me how to deliver effective presentations when I’m unable to see the slides.
Adam Fishbein, Policy Advisor
I’ve benefited from so many mentors over the years, but one of the people who had a most significant impact on my career trajectory is a high school teacher. Jeff Gelman—or Mr. Gelman to those of us lucky enough to have him—teaches writing and journalism. His teaching style and commitment helped me not only develop essential skills, but also the ability to effectively manage my work, especially if I became overwhelmed. His influence also spurred me to join the school newspaper and eventually become one of its editors. Although I didn’t pursue journalism as a career, the experience taught me how to express myself clearly and the importance of writing across disciplines. In fact, writing has been a key component of every internship and job I’ve ever had, including in my role as a policy advisor at ODEP today. While I certainly appreciated Mr. Gelman’s impact in real time, I have a heightened appreciation for it now. He had a profound impact on my development, both personally and professionally.
Nadia Mossburg, Senior Policy Advisor
Over the years, many people have shared their wisdom and encouragement and challenged me to think critically about my career. These include Tim Tate, John Vance, Doug Pennington, Katherine Slye-Griffin, Christine Williams, and the late Deborah Levine and Bobby Silverstein, to name just a few. I didn’t necessarily have formal mentoring relationships with these individuals, but each offered honesty and openness about both the highs and lows of professional growth. What I appreciate most was their guidance without judgment, which helped me take calculated chances and be more confident in my decisions. Like me, some of my mentors had disabilities, which brought an additional dimension to the counsel they shared. But all impacted me in different ways and helped me become the type of leader I want to be, which is influenced by many factors that shape who I am and thus the perspectives I bring to the workplace, for instance, as a woman, a first-generation Arab American, a person with a disability and a Midwesterner.
Silvia Calderon, Policy Advisor
Someone I’d like to thank who made a big difference in my life and career development is Abbe Smith, who was one of my law school professors. During Professor Smith’s course, she not only taught us the subject matter at hand, but also prepared us for the real world we’d encounter when we began working in the legal field. On a personal level, she taught me to never be intimidated by any job opportunity that came my way; that I could take on big challenges by being prepared, and that new opportunities meant the chance to acquire new skills and grow professionally. She also taught me a lot about perseverance and the importance of building and maintaining a strong and supportive professional network. This wisdom has proved very beneficial as I’ve advanced in my career, and I’m grateful for her positive impact.
Frances Vhay, Business Development Specialist
Someone I’d like to thank is Dana Fink, who was a mentor to me in my 20s and whom I’m now happy to consider a good friend. It started when Dana was my supervisor during an internship my junior year of college. As I graduated and started working, she provided career advice, support and guidance. She also served as a role model. The fact that she is a person with a disability herself strengthened this; her career path was one I wanted to emulate, and her success reinforced that it was achievable to me while managing my own chronic health condition. Dana was also the first supervisor to whom I disclosed my condition in order to request accommodations, and that experience ended up being transformative. She was positive and understanding and in fact helped me view my experience with disability in a new light—how it gave me important attributes, such as the ability to plan and adapt to change. This led to greater pride and confidence as I advanced in my career.
If you’re an employer interested in learning more about how to implement disability-inclusive mentoring programs in your organization, the ODEP-funded Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) offers various “how to” resources, including a fact sheet on Mentoring as a Disability Inclusion Strategy and a comprehensive Workplace Mentoring Playbook.