Joseph Nolan, a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, shares with us his experiences as a participant and mentor for On To the Future, and how the program has deepened his commitment to the geosciences and to GSA.
What attracted you to the On To the Future program?
Originally, I was introduced to the On To the Future (OTF) program by a professor who wanted me to be involved in GSA and to experience a conference first hand. Like many undergraduates, I was unable to afford travel to a conference on my own. OTF allowed me the opportunity to travel to a conference and begin networking into my career.
What impact has your participation in the program had on your career in the geosciences?
I have always been passionate about seeing more representation of other backgrounds and lifestyles in STEM fields. During my application and acceptance process, I was expecting a one-and-done grant. I was blown away that I was committing to an entire community of extraordinary individuals. This experience was so rewarding and invigorating that I contacted Tahlia Bear almost immediately upon returning home to be a mentor.
Not only have I had the privilege of meeting so many great people, I have learned so much about being a mentor for all sorts of individuals, especially those different from myself. I have not taken these lessons lightly. Since starting with OTF, I have met so many wonderful students from across America, and last year had the opportunity to meet an entire group from Puerto Rico.
I was able to hear firsthand the paths and trials these wonderful people went through in order to earn their degrees. We did a story-board diagram, which detailed many of these paths from the past up through their long-term goals. These students had so many things in common—born in a similar area, of similar socioeconomic status, etc.—yet they all had very different pasts and goals. That experience really showed me that a mentor needs to look beyond the obvious similarities of students and look for the differences in order to help them individually. OTF has prepared me to be a better support system, not just my students, but also my family and friends interested in getting back into college.
As an OTF participant, how important was the community aspect of your experience?
The community aspect was the most important part of my experience. It is great coming back conference after conference to hear how students have grown, as well as to meet new students with new challenges. It creates a feeling that we are not alone in our struggles. Tahlia and her team have been supportive and passionate about every student they work with. I am not someone who really participates in large communal activities—it’s just not my thing—but I feel like OTF is a second family. We all learn from each other, support each other, and now communicate semi-regularly through the OTF forums.
How has your experience of the GSA and OTF communities changed or deepened since serving as a mentor?
Professorship has been a lifelong goal; I love teaching and mentoring. I never feel more fulfilled as a person, both career-wise and emotionally, as I do when I see a student succeed in reaching their personal goals. OTF has provided a place and source of knowledge I can use to hone those mentoring and guidance skills. Despite my own goals and passions, I have always been uncomfortable when starting a mentoring relationship with anyone. Now I look forward to it.
What would you say to someone who is thinking about supporting OTF, either as a mentor or a donor?
There is simply a plethora of groups out there who claim and tout all the merits and positive effects of their programs; many fail to produce, and many more underproduce. However, OTF has built a remarkable and successful program developed around inclusivity, education, and support. When something works it works, but unfortunately even the most successful programs in the world need a little help. OTF teaches students and mentors how to be successful, which in turn helps us teach others to also be successful. This amazing group of people are touching lives and creating lasting effects in our communities. Please considering helping any way you can so we can keep paying these lessons forward.