I Earned My Wisdom

Karen Harper | Woman of Power | Project Heard

 

By: Karen Harper
Vice President, Building Engineering & Science Talent

Woman Smiling | Project HeardMy journey has been filled with ups and downs, twist and turns, but no doubt I have weathered the storm. I can distinctly remember the stinging words in high school from a guidance counselor who said to me, “You are not college material, you will not make it through college and it would be better to focus on employment in a factory or nursing home.” I felt like I was walking against the wind, but I ignored his advice and began the college application process. That was in 1972, and now 44 years later, with a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree, and having contributed 34 years of federal service, those words left an impression but did not deter me. They fueled me instead.

What I learned early from that incident is that my dream could not be railroaded by someone who did not believe in me or my aspirations. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I learned about the value of a mentor, Dr. Anne B. Shearer. She encouraged me to explore, be strong, and remember those that will need my help one day. That was re-emphasized by Alice Lucas, a well-established businesswoman I met after graduating from college. She nurtured my eagerness to learn the ropes. It wasn’t a surprise that I soon would meet Dixie Allen, a veteran civil servant who lived and breathed the definition of mentor, coach, and champion. It was under Dixie’s guidance that I learned how to navigate the waters. Finally, a treasured caregiver and Christian woman, Louise Combs, showed me that faith would carry me through all challenges. All of these were women of wisdom cared enough about the future to reach back.  This is exactly what mentors do.

It wasn’t just my career that I learned to embrace; I became aware of how powerful it was to have a mentor and to become a mentor. Over the course of 25 years, I sought out opportunities to become a mentor, foster mentoring programs, and create a mentoring initiative. I took what I learned from my mentors and began to apply this knowledge as I built mentoring relationships. I remember establishing a mentoring program for a middle school in Ohio. While managing the program I also mentored a 5th grade girl. Every time I would meet with her at the school another 5th grader who didn’t want to participate in the mentoring program became more inquisitive about why I would bother to keep returning every week. What she really desired but didn’t want to us to know was that she wanted to be mentored. This was the start of a wonderful journey defining my skills as a mentor and helping girls and young women realize their potential. I mentored a college intern for three years and exposed her to professional career women to include taking her to a women’s conference so that she could network with powerful women. The women I have described above are just a few of the scores of young women that I’ve mentored who were exploring career growth opportunities and life balance decisions. My niece, Ericka Hines, often shares that having me as an aunt and mentor is the best of both worlds. As a mentor, I have become a “go-to person” and sounding board for women deliberating important academic and professional decisions. Mentoring was in my blood, it had become my passion, and it was my way of giving back. 

One lesson I have learned is that both informal and formal mentoring can be beneficial. Typically, formal mentoring is supported and authorized by an organization that manages and monitors the matching process, while informal mentoring is less structured and occurs outside the boundaries of an organization and does not have specific criteria. Another important lesson is that technology has also influenced mentoring styles and approaches so that it can take place in various formats.

When I discarded the discouragement from the early ‘70s, learned from my mentors, and followed my heart, I launched a mentoring initiative, “Pearls of Wisdom: Our Braided Lives.”    This is a mentoring workshop that I have conducted across the country to foster strong mentoring relationships between middle and high school girls and experienced professional women. The most powerful part of this symbolic exercise is the “braiding their lives together” at a braiding tree using yarn, ribbon, and cording which represents the young woman, the seasoned woman and the wisdom that transpires between the years. This and a lifetime of mentoring has taught me that wisdom earned by me should be the gift that I give to the women who are aspiring to move forward.

Karen.harper@bestworkforce.org

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