Mentor of Distinction
Dr. Anne Naeth’s work in the discipline of plant ecology runs parallel to her theory as a mentor: with a little nurturing, wonderful things can grow in new environments.
Naeth, Professor of Applied Ecology and Land Reclamation in the University of Alberta’s Department of Renewable Resources, has made a big impression in the lives of her students over the past 13 years. For many, Naeth’s influence and inspiration takes root on their first day in her classroom.
“Mentoring is so important, particularly to young people when they’re starting university. Many of them really don’t know what they want to do with their lives; they’re just kind of wandering and exploring – they don’t even think about the possibilities,” Naeth says. “But when you tell them about some of their exciting career options and suddenly see their eyes light up, well, that’s just the best thing.”
For this immensely popular professor, teaching and mentoring naturally go together.
It’s difficult for a teacher not to be a mentor, because you’re in the front of the classroom and in the front of these students’ lives so of course, they’re going to look at you as a role model. Yet, mentoring goes beyond the classroom. It’s about letting them know who you are and finding out who they are. It’s understanding the individual, not just the developing knowledge base.
Naeth recalls one such instance of extending help to a student who needed guidance to overcome a personal obstacle.
“I had one student in my undergrad land reclamation program who was absolutely petrified of speaking in class, even though there was a participation component. She said, ‘If you call on me, I will die!’” Naeth chuckles, recounting the pupil’s exact words. “Whenever I hear something like that, I make a point of talking to the student, figuring out where they’re at and seeing if we can find a way to work through it.”
Naeth empathetically worked with the young woman as she faced her fear. The first step was for the student to ask a guest speaker a pre-prepared question in class.
“She asked her question and guess what? She didn’t die,” Naeth smiles. “And it kind of went along like that, guiding her through in baby steps.” Although mentoring is an ancient practice of sharing intellectual, moral and spiritual learning, it has only recently become accepted practice in the classroom.
“I think it’s more acceptable now because people are more comfortable with the idea of reaching out a hand and asking for help, and accepting when it’s offered to them. We’re not hiding as much behind the façade of ‘I’m so independent. I can do this on my own.’ The whole learning atmosphere is different and much more responsive for both mentors and the people being mentored.”
Naeth’s predilection for one-on-one mentoring may stem from the fact that while Naeth was still a student working on her Masters degree, she found herself seeking guidance from an influential advisor.
“He was a senior soil scientist at Agriculture Canada and a true proponent of women. One of the first things he said to me was, ‘We need more women in soil science. You’re going on to do your PhD, aren’t you?’” she laughs. “He was a good sounding board, letting me know the nuances within the group I was moving into. He was very supportive, introducing me to people, giving me advice on publishing and how to blend different components of my career. He was wonderful.”
Many years later, as one of the few women in a predominantly male faculty and discipline, Naeth now welcomes students to benefit from her knowledge, experience and obvious enthusiasm.
“I think that mentoring is not only guidance but inspiration as well. Many students are inspired simply by someone who just loves what they’re doing. They say ‘I want to be as happy in my job as you are.’ I love hearing that! For me, that’s the thing: to light that fire and give them something that they want to work towards and feel passionate about.”
Aside from her impressive work in plant ecology, reclamation, revegetation and remediation of disturbed ecosystems, Naeth is renowned for her instructional excellence and efforts in championing innovative teaching methods. By developing new teaching resources and contributing to numerous committees and programs, including a personal commitment to mentoring graduate teaching assistants and new professors through University Teaching Services, Naeth actively promotes effective mentoring so that others can share the benefits.
“As a mentor, to be able to open doors and show someone that the sky’s the limit is a really wonderful thing. Your guidance helps them discover what they have a passion for and then helps them develop that passion.”
Among Naeth’s current projects is a “pay it forward” approach to peer mentoring.
One thing I’m working towards is a channel of mentoring. When I interview my PhD students, I say that one thing I expect from them is that they’ll mentor the younger MSc students coming in. I really try to foster that interest within my own graduate student group and it has worked so wonderfully. Right now, I feel like we’ve got a team, not just a group of students.
And speaking of students, whatever happened to that young undergraduate who was too terrified to speak in public? She became Naeth’s grad student, continued their mentoring relationship and as time went on, she finally conquered her fear once and for all.
“She won an award from the Canadian Land Reclamation Association and at the banquet, where all the students had to do was go up to accept their award, smile for a picture, then leave the stage, she instead took the option of saying thank you to the entire audience,” Naeth recalls proudly. “I sat there and thought, you’ve come a long way girl!”