Reciprocal Mentorship

by Alicia Belton, FAIA, NOMA, AIA Minnesota President

I’ve been reflecting lately on my untraditional career path in architecture and the role mentorship has played in shaping my life and my work.

I first interned in a small two-person firm, followed by another summer internship for a real estate department at a university. After graduate school, I worked for a Fortune 500 company before starting my own practice. Each of these positions was grounded in the desire to not only gain meaningful work experience but also in the value of having work-life balance in an environment that supported my well-being and growth. Equally important for me was seeing how attention to diversity, inclusion, and equity were implemented in leadership and practice.

Working at these places also provided invaluable experiences in mentorship. Through a formal mentorship program at that Fortune 500 company, I was paired with a female manager who was married with children and not in architecture. The hours she spent with me provided helpful and timely insights, since I was fresh out of school and learning how to manage my own life.

Her mentorship inspired me to embrace the responsibility of giving back to others. It led me to find a place within the organization where I could serve; I joined a recruiting team for my alma mater. Although it was early in my career, I recognized that I had practical skills and life lessons to share with those who were beginning their own professional journeys.

Our profession has traditionally practiced a one-way apprenticeship model where the older generation takes the younger generation under their wing. I’m happy to see that there is growing recognition of another way: reciprocal, two-way mentorship.

In fact, at this point in my career, people younger than me tend to be my greatest source of inspiration and learning. Yes, I will be the first to admit that I am technology challenged and my digital-native mentors have taught me a lot. The passionately talented, up-and-coming and ready to change the world design professionals in my life also regularly broaden my knowledge in sustainability and equity.

Professional mentorship is best when we see ourselves as simultaneously mentors and mentees. As we give, we receive. When we learn, we grow. And, together, we create a better profession and a better world in the process.

View the May 2022 edition of Matrix.