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A Mentor’s Advice: It’s Okay If You Haven't Figured It All Out

Published June 21, 2018

A Mentor’s Advice: It’s Okay If You Haven't Figured It All Out
A Mentor’s Advice: It’s Okay If You Haven't Figured It All Out

Paul Noujaim

A Mentor’s Advice: It’s Okay If You Haven't Figured It All Out

Justin Giza

Not everyone knows what they want to be when they grow up—it can be a scary prospect to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. A mentor can ease your mind as you navigate the confusing path of planning out your future. That’s why, when Paul Noujaim, 17, from Darien, CT, heard about United Technologies STEM U through his high school, he seized the opportunity to join.

Mentoring is one component of United Technologies (UTC) STEM U, an initiative developed jointly with the New York Academy of Sciences in 2017 to inspire more students to pursue STEM careers. Through an online platform, student mentees ages 13-18 complete learning modules that teach them 21st century skills such as communication and leadership, and also help them navigate the college search and application process. Students are assigned a personal mentor, whom they interact with on a regular basis, at mutually-agreed upon times, for a period of one year.   

Paul’s mentor, Justin Giza, is Manager of Digital Newsstand Operations for Barnes & Noble Inc. He recalls his first impressions of Paul when the pair began the program: “At first he seemed a little overwhelmed by what he wanted to do in life. I talked him through the many hops and jumps I've personally made to reach where I'm at today. I think it put his mind at ease to know that he didn’t need to have everything mapped out, as long as he keeps his eyes open for fresh and exciting challenges.”

Justin himself had more of an informal mentoring experience, taught by both his father and grandfather to stay flexible in his career path and simply look out for opportunities that interested him. After graduating from college, Justin worked at a coffee shop and did freelance audio work on the side. Through people he met as part of that job, Justin moved towards food writing and sound editing for an online startup publication.

"That job really kicked things off for me—it rolled a lot of my interests into one beautiful ball of tech and food,” Justin explained. And it ultimately helped him launch his career with Barnes & Noble.

Hearing about Justin’s career journey showed Paul that it’s okay for him to not know all the answers yet. “Justin has been in the same shoes as I am, going through the college process and planning for the future,” Paul says. “He’s been able to offer me advice and anecdotes from his life that are very applicable to my own.” Paul adds that the perspective he’s been able to get from Justin—an adult outside his school and family circle—has made him more confident about his future.

Although many of the mentors in the program are STEM professionals, it’s not a requirement to be a scientist or engineer. What is required? A passion for getting more young people interested in STEM.

“I have always had a love for education,” Justin notes. “I feel we need more people involved in STEM as a whole because the workforce is moving away from traditional labor jobs and moving towards STEM fields.” Justin’s right—according to the U.S. Census Bureau, STEM jobs have grown 79 percent since 1990. “Mentoring through UTC STEM U has been a great way for me to help foster a sense of curiosity in STEM,” he explains.

But the benefits of a mentoring relationship aren't just a one-way street. While Justin was able to inspire Paul, working with Paul helped Justin improve his own communication skills. One tip Justin says he would offer to other mentors: “If you find yourself taking up most of the conversational space, you aren't guiding—you're probably instructing. Instead, try to ask more questions of your mentee; to identify what they really need.”

UTC  STEM U will begin to recruit mentors and mentees for its second cohort this summer. Learn more about the program and how you can inspire the next generation of STEM professionals.