More Than Mentors

More Than Mentors

Begun in the classroom, relationships between professors and students thrive beyond Mayflower Hill.

By Gerry Boyle '78

Nuss with students
Billy Fong '09 left, and Aqsa Mahmood '10, right, with Associate Professor of Music Steven Nuss, second from right, and Nuss's partner, Gordon Gee, at Nuss's and Gee's Manhattan home.

One is Jill Morejon Gutierrez ’00, a program analyst for the Women’s Bureau, an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor in New York. Gutierrez recalls being a “young and stupid” first-year when she first met Franko, going to her for help when she was struggling in another class. Franko would relieve her stress with small talk, Gutierrez recalled. “She’d say, ‘Oh, Jill, you look nice today. Do you have a date?’”

The stress relief was augmented by serious academics. Franko counseled Gutierrez about her Watson Fellowship (traveling to Chile, Portugal, and the Philippines to study fisheries) and has been there with advice “at every pivotal moment” in her professional life, from graduate school to job changes, she said.

It’s a friendship that began in the classroom but spans life with all of its triumphs and disappointments, as faculty become surrogate parents. “At [Jill’s] wedding, her mother came and sat down, and I was saying how beautiful her daughter looked,” Franko said. “Her mother said to me, ‘Well, in many ways she’s your daughter, too.’”

Sometimes the relationship is based on the support of faculty in loco parentis. At other times it begins when a professor treats a student as a peer. Mary Medlin ’05 is enrolled in the Warren Wilson College M.F.A. Program for Writers, where she writes fiction. Six years ago Medlin was a beginning creative writing student at Colby who quickly found a kindred spirit in Professor Debra Spark. Medlin found that she and Spark liked the same kinds of novels, the same movies. But it was Spark’s respect that buoyed Medlin in a way she hadn’t felt before.

“I had never had somebody talk to me as if I was actually a writer,” Medlin said. “She made me feel like there was something I had to say and it wouldn’t come into this world if it didn’t come through me.”

Spark meant it then, and still does, she said insisting that Medlin’s work is sophisticated and is going to get noticed. “Encouragement at the right moment,” she said, may be a teacher’s greatest gift. And those moments don’t necessarily end at commencement.

“I’m sure I’ll find myself in the throes of despair at some point in the semester and send her an e-mail,” Medlin said, laughing. “She’ll write back to assuage my anxiety.”

Debra Spark
Professor of English Debra Spark confers with a student in her office in Miller Library.

From fiction to physics, those messages go out regularly from Mayflower Hill. Sadoff, an acclaimed and widely respected poet who for many years taught creative writing, is a private reader and friend for dozens of Colby writers. But recently he gave a former student, poet Gillian Kiley ’95, a very public leg up.

Sadoff chose Kiley as the subject of an “Emerging Poets” feature in American Poetry, an influential magazine. He praised her recently finished book-length poem, Palisades, saying the work “illustrates the rewards of purposely withdrawing from the public eye.”

“She reminds us that poetry requires solitude and a degree of unworldliness…;” Sadoff writes. “The poet who finds some shelter from commerce and composes out of necessity is more likely to resist literary fashion and eschew facility in favor of urgency and difficulty.”

Kiley, who earned an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, works in library external relations and stewardship at Brown University. Her poem is a meditation on her father’s death.

“I just have enormous respect for her integrity, her talent, her modesty,” Sadoff said. Even after years of conversations and conferences with Sadoff about her work, Kiley was bowled over by the essay and its praise of her new work. “The fact that it came from Ira—I’m still having a hard time absorbing it.”

While Sadoff’s endorsement most likely will have an impact on her writing career, Kiley said the special thing about their longtime friendship is that it extends beyond poetry. “It’s a friendship based on having certain things in common … but it’s a friendship that would be in place if I stopped writing,” she said.

Kiley recalled a conversation when she was in graduate school and worried about her marks. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll be friends anyway.’”

Sadoff, who still corresponds with a professor who was his own mentor in graduate school, said he simply has a genuine admiration for many of his students and an interest in how their adult lives unfold.

It is a sentiment heard across the campus.

As Franko put it, “You come to Colby as an eighteen-year-old,” she said, “but you don’t leave.”

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  • On November 3, 2009, john c. edes wrote:
    no professor was appreciated anymore than jim gillespie (psychology) as he mentored so many Colby athletes. Those of us who played at Colby in the fifties and sixties will ever forget him.