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Associated Alumni

The accidental doctor

Roxanne Reeves (BA'06, MA'09, PhD'14) never thought that she would finish university, let alone achieve her PhD.  

“My whole life, I had been faking smart and faking competent," she says. "The only reason I got out of high school was, by and large, due to the good will of my teachers and the ‘group work’ my friends bestowed upon me. Their completed homework became my homework, and their answers became my answers. You know what that’s code for right?”

For about three decades reading and writing were pretty much out of reach for Reeves. In her 30s, and for the fourth time, she was set to drop out of university; that is until an accidental meeting forever changed her life and set her on a path as a tireless crusader for the transformational benefits of mentorship.

"I was on my way to the Registrar's Office to officially drop out, again," says Reeves. "That's when I met Lee-Ellen. This kind and caring woman must have sensed something was wrong because, out of nowhere and in the sincerest way, she asked me: 'How is school going?' For the first time, I admitted out loud and to someone other than myself, how I felt -- stupid. "

As luck would have it, or maybe it was fate, this "kind-eyed" woman worked at UNB's Centre for Students with Learning Disabilities. Encouraging Reeves not to give up on her education, or herself, she suggested getting tested for a learning disability.

"Never once did I think I had a learning disability, I just thought I wasn't smart," says Reeves. 

As the wife of a New Brunswick premier (at the time), Reeves schooled herself in the fast and furious world of provincial politics and became quite adept at navigating this world, all the while keeping her academic challenges guarded.

"After three failed attempts at a university degree, I really felt like I was about to become a ‘failed’ first lady," she says. "But, at the suggestion of Lee-Ellen, I didn't drop out that day. Instead, I heeded her advice and got tested."

The unlimited power of mentorship

Armed with her diagnosis and the support she needed, Reeves continued on her academic journey, this time with the tools to succeed. She completed her bachelor of arts degree in 2006, her master's degree in 2009, and received her PhD in 2014. Throughout her academic journey, she never forgot Lee-Ellen or the profound impact she had on her life.

"Lee-Ellen taught me that I can learn," says Reeves. "I just learn differently. She saw more in me than I had seen in myself. What may have seemed like a small gesture on her part, had a profound impact on my life. She is the ultimate definition of a mentor. If it hadn't been for her and UNB’s Centre for Students with Disabilities, I am absolutely certain that I would not be where I am today.”

Motivated by her experiences and her desire to "help people embrace and navigate the pathways of opportunity through mentorship," Reeves has made mentorship her life’s work, both as a researcher and as a practitioner.

In her TEDx talk, Mentoring's Broken: Here's How to Hack It, Reeves challenges the old model of mentorship -- the one from decades ago, where the mentor is in charge and the mentee is someone "who we passively pour knowledge into" -- and argues that this is not the model that works today.

"Seventy-five per cent of today's executives credit mentors with helping them reach their current level of success, and yet, more than 40 per cent of millennials are without a mentor," she says. "We are failing the next generation. The mentoring formula we have come to know is broken."

But, according to Reeves, mentorship can get back on track. "We can hack mentoring, if we flip the power structure from the mentor to the mentee. The model that works best is one in which the mentee takes ownership. Successful mentees realize that good mentoring relationships don’t just happen."

Reeves says that building relationships is key and those new to the workforce should seek out every opportunity to grow their network and soak up as much advice as possible.

"Cultivating good mentor-mentee relationships is not easy. Mentees have to want to be mentored and they have to seek it out. They have to know what they want out of the relationship and shouldn't assume that the mentor will know how to mentor them."

Because cultivating mentoring relationships take time, Reeves suggests having several mentors with varying levels of expertise -- "build a network."

"Mentors don't have to be working in the same field as the mentee, and they don't always need to provide work-related mentorship," says Reeves. "Providing sponsorship, an encouraging word or showing someone that they are valued, can sometimes be enough.”

Reeves marvels at how her mentors raised the bar for her, modelled the way, pushed her beyond her personal limits, and encouraged her to enlarge her thinking, and believed in her. "They saw in me what I couldn’t. When I was overwhelmed, they paused with me as I caught my breath.”

"When you look at individuals who have achieved what they have set out to do, the one thing you'll find they have in common is mentorship."

Roxanne Reeves

About Roxanne Reeves

Roxanne Reeves was the guest speaker at the UNB Associated Alumnae's semi-annual general meeting. She is a researcher, thought leader and professional speaker. Her work on mentorship and lifelong learning has appeared in the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring; and Coaching at Work. She is one of fewer than 15 scholars recognized by the International Mentoring Association for her research and work. Reeves currently teaches at UNB's Renaissance College. She can be reached at 506-471-7734.

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