International Women’s Day panelists delve into impact of mentoring

Elon faculty members and a local nonprofit leader spoke about their personal experiences with mentorship and how they used those lessons with those they mentor today.

Elon University celebrated the 2023 International Women’s Day and its theme of “accelerating equality and empowerment” with a panel and group discussion on Wednesday, March 8.

The three panelists discussed their personal experiences with mentorship and how they have been empowered over their careers and in turn, how they have tried to empower those who seek mentorship from them.

Elon University President Connie Ledoux Book speaking at the 2023 International Women’s Day panel on March 8.

President Connie Ledoux Book gave a brief introduction to the panel discussion, noting that this year’s theme was “especially relevant.”

“The goal of it is to get the world talking about why equal opportunities are not enough because we all start from different places,” Book said.

Vanessa Truelove, a student in the M.A. in Higher Education Program, moderated the event and asked the panelists to think about how mentorship flows through their daily lives.

“One of the roles that I think I play the most frequently is connecting and bridging between different groups as well as trying to be an advocate for people who aren’t in the room and bring more voices into that space,” said Elena Kennedy, Doherty Emerging Professor of Entrepreneurship and associate professor of entrepreneurship, during the event in the Lakeside meeting rooms. “Part of that is identifying opportunities and pushing them towards folks.”

This idea of looking out for the next person is the foundation of panelist Franca Jollah’s work. Jollah is the founder and executive director of Jalloh’s Upright Immigration and Refugee Services in Greensboro. The organization offers immigration legal services, diversity, equity and inclusion programming, and a variety of other services for the immigrant community in North Carolina.

Jollah herself immigrated to America by way of Sierra Leone and a 10-year stint in Brunei in Southeast Asia and is familiar with the process of moving to a new country. When she first arrived in the United States 22 years ago seeking her own immigration status, she experienced a fundamental moment of mentorship, one that she draws upon in her work with people today.

It came after she explained her situation to the person interviewing her, and that person asked her a simple yet powerful question — What are you doing with your life? He then asked her if she wanted to come to the law firm and work as an assistant. She accepted and for six years, she got hands-on experience learning the ins and outs of the legal profession.

“It shaped me to the point that every student that walks through our doors … I want to make sure that they want to stay and want to other others,” Jollah said. “Everything I do not only shapes me but my children and everything I do not only shapes them but everything around us to make the future a much better place.”

Stephanie Baker, associate professor of public health studies and chair of the Department of Public Health Studies, spoke about a valuable lesson she learned from a legend in the public health community.

One day in the hallways of the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill, she had a chance encounter with Bill Jenkins, an epidemiologist who tried to end the Tuskegee syphilis study. She didn’t recognize him but in talking, she mentioned how she wanted to bring high schoolers to the Minority Health Conference and needed donations.

International Women’s Day panel meeting at Lakeside, March 8, 2023.

Right there, Jenkins wrote a blank check and handed it to Baker. It was months before Baker realized who Jenkins was and his significance to the public health community. When she asked him why he hadn’t told her, he said, “Why does it matter?”

“That taught me not to bring the things that I do in front of me before relationship building,” Baker said. “We had a really sweet relationship because it was founded on connection and … not around him being a celebrity in public health.”

The panel answered several questions from the audience and afterward, attendees were invited for dinner and conversation with those at their tables about mentoring for change.