Illustration by Maria Fabrizio

Though the students I’ve mentored over the course of my career number in the hundreds, I remember all of their faces. Their candid observations, heartfelt disclosures, and passionate indignations — these I recall with even greater clarity.

I have mentored students for more than 20 years, inspired by a desire to repay those who guided my path. My wife, Dr. Betty Neal Crutcher, and I launched our first formal program together in 1999 while I was on the faculty at Miami University. We partnered with the offices of admission and student affairs to identify students and began meeting with them regularly. I met with a cohort of male students and Betty with a similar one of women. Her background in cross-cultural mentoring got her off to a confident start; in the beginning, I was just trying to keep up.

Do I think students will really tell me how they feel and how they are doing academically?

The rules of our groups have always been straightforward: attend each meeting, do the homework, respect others, participate actively, and maintain confidentiality as a reflection of trust. In other words, what happens in mentoring, stays in mentoring.

This simple playbook has worked well for us over place and time. From others, there are always questions: Is my group composed of minority students only? Why do we separate into clusters of men and women? Do I think students will really tell me how they feel and how they are doing academically?

I have repeated the answers often: Each mentoring group includes students from many backgrounds who bring diverse knowledge and understanding to our conversations. We separate by gender because students tell us that they prefer it, and we meet together as one large unit regularly. I liken it to the university’s coordinate college system, which has evolved to ensure that gender is not a barrier to association.

And students will always tell me how they feel, even about difficult subjects. This past year, one student I was mentoring shared a paper he wrote called “Reducing Feelings of Marginalization for Black Students.” In it, he openly cited ways he believed Richmond was failing its black students. He offered a number of ideas, from creating a mandatory course to considering a chief diversity officer and providing cultural competency training for faculty. I admired not only his candor, but his proposed solutions — the productive antidote to contrarians everywhere.

With his and the other students’ permission, I shared his paper and sentiments from our group’s many conversations on race and class with members of the new President’s Advisory Committee on Making Excellence Inclusive. Similarly candid conversations — about consent, privilege, resilience, and school/life balance, among other topics — have encouraged change, informed policies, and underpinned the university’s actions during my tenure as president. Simply put, my interactions with those I mentor help me better understand our students’ needs.

The young have long done this for the generations before them. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead put it well when she wrote, “The young, free to act on their initiative, can lead their elders in the direction of the unknown. (They) must ask the questions that we would never think to ask, but enough trust must be re-established so that the elders will be permitted to work with them on the answers.” Put another way, we help them become who they are, and they likewise do the same for us and this institution we share.

I have spent the better part of my life working with students on the answers that matter to us all. I hope that, through our exchanges, they develop a set of resources to help them be resilient throughout their lives. To excel as students, and to be comfortable engaging civilly and respectfully in difficult conversations about class, race, gender, and other complicated social issues. To know how and why to disagree agreeably and to defend a position with facts, reason, and equanimity. To understand what it means to work effectively to advance knowledge, solve complicated problems, and enjoy one another as travelers together in this world.