Jan. 15, 2024

The Transformative Power of Mentorship

Mentorship can be a life-changing event for both mentees and mentors.

January is National Mentoring Month, and with it comes the opportunity to spotlight the profound impact mentorship has on personal and professional development for University of Calgary alumni. The month honours and celebrates the pivotal role mentors play in guiding, inspiring and nurturing the potential of individuals striving for growth. 

Jusnoor Aujla, BSc'21 (Biological Sciences), BSc’21 (Psychology), is a driven UCalgary graduate whose journey as both a mentor and mentee is a testament to the transformative influence of mentorship. Amidst the challenges and complexities of navigating his own UCalgary education, Aujla was also a guide for Aaron So, BSc'23. Their dynamic partnership exemplifies the essence of mentorship, showcasing the symbiotic relationship in mentorship, fostering connection and growth.


Jusnoor Aujla, BSc'21 (Biological Sciences), BSc’21 (Psychology)

First in Family  

Being a first-generation university student is a significant and possibly daunting achievement, representing a milestone in one’s family history as well as steps into unchartered territory for oneself. Add on being the first to be born in Canada, and that describes Aujla’s journey.  

Navigating the university experience as a first-generation student presented unique challenges for Aujla from the start, as the academic environment was unfamiliar and foreign.   

"Neither of my parents completed high school, so they weren't familiar with the university experience,” says Aujla, who started his undergraduate combined degree in 2016. “Additionally, my brother [who is three years older] was still working on his degree and figuring things out himself.” 

Seeking guidance, Aujla was drawn to the mentorship programs in both the Department of Psychology and Faculty of Science. He considered himself fortunate to be under the guidance of exceptional mentors who aided him in structuring his classes, navigating potential career trajectories and introducing him to the realm of research.  

Research was something he wouldn’t have known to consider as he was still acquainting himself with the academic environment. His key mentors, particularly the professors involved, including William Huddleston, BSc'99, MSc'03, in biological sciences and Dr. Kathleen Hughes, PhD, in psychology, among others, helped him establish connections and broaden his horizons regarding potential careers in both fields. 

“A lot of the things that you would learn if you had experience with family [or friends] who had gone to university, I learned from my mentors,” says Aujla, who credits Huddleston and Hughes for their “active participation that extended beyond scheduled mentorship sessions.”  

Through their initiative, joining in student meetings and activities and with the guidance of Kathleen Ralph, BFA’16, with the Science Mentorship program, Aujla’s awareness of his opportunities grew. He was able to increase his understanding about opportunities within the academic spheres of research, which was previously foreign, and to the depth and breadth of opportunities in both biological sciences and psychology.  

For Aujla, these insights were invaluable, as they reassured him that, regardless of his academic pursuits, diverse job opportunities awaited in the fields of biological sciences and psychology. The mentors assumed roles where they could impart guidance and nurture the belief that a fulfilling career awaited regardless of their mentee’s chosen path. It was through this that Aujla chose his pursuit of a combined degree in biological sciences and psychology.  

“I felt the pressure to do a biology degree and pursue a certain path,” says Aujla. “But, for me, I really liked psychology and the research that was related to it.”  

Aujla felt compelled enough to pursue the path less-travelled — a combined degree in biological sciences and psychology. “My professors helped me understand that I could do both, so that I can make both myself and my family happy,” he says. 

Aaron So

Aaron So, BSc'23

Like Meeting an Old Friend for the First Time 

So’s parents immigrated to Canada — one entered the hospitality industry and the other the manufacturing industry. “I saw how hard they worked to get me here,” says So. “I felt pressure on myself, thinking that I [owe it to them] to make the most of this opportunity.”  

So was also the first in his family to go to university, a path similar to that of Aujla. Initially admitted into the field of biological sciences, So soon found himself grappling with an unexpected realization during his inaugural fall term UCalgary. He felt an innate pull toward psychology, recognizing it as a potentially more fitting path. In this way, So’s story also echoes Aujla’s, though instead of taking a combined degree, he committed to majoring in psychology for his Bachelor of Science. So felt a conflict with his decision and a sense of responsibility as the first in his family to attend post-secondary.  

The weight of this type of move was something that seemed overwhelming for So to deal with for a time. Faced with this struggle, he sought a semblance of familiarity and guidance and, having already signed up for the Science Mentorship program, So found himself a resonating voice in his new mentor, Aujla. 

“It was really interesting they paired us because he was faced with the same dilemma I had gone through,” says Aujla. “It was like talking to a younger version of myself.” 

So recalls engaging in discussions with Aujla, expressing uncertainties about his commitment to biological sciences while he was considering a transfer to psychology. It was during this time, after a bout with burnout, that So found his passion and interests lay in helping others.  

“I became involved with campus mental health initiatives by attending some workshops, such as The Inquiring Mind and Community Helpers,” says So. “I knew that mental health among post-secondary students was something that needed to be addressed, and that it wasn't talked about enough among the student population.” 

After these experiences, So connected with Dr. Andrew Szeto, PhD, director of UCalgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy, wanting to learn more about what was being done in this area. After communicating his passion for post-secondary student mental health advocacy, So says, Szeto “kept me in mind and in the loop for mental health advocacy opportunities” connected to the Strategy. 

Meanwhile, Aujla was able to offer So advice and perspective based on his experience in navigating transfers, identifying one’s interests and balancing the perspectives of one’s family. This guidance provided played a significant role in So’s decision to switch majors. 

“It's like he just knew how I felt, and it was probably similar to the things that he thought about in first year,” says So. “Having that support in my first year as a first-generation student, it's monumental. Without a predefined path or someone close who has navigated it before, it's challenging to anticipate what lies ahead.” 

So graduated in June 2023 and is now in a lead administrator role at a private psychology clinic. He is also a responder with the new 9-8-8 National Suicide Prevention Line that launched in late November 2023. Looking to the future, So lists a goal to complete his Master of Science in counselling psychology.   

So stresses the importance and benefits of mentorship: “It was where I learned that, while doing things alone is an option and I could do them well, why not leverage the insights of those who have navigated such paths before?” 

Mentorship is a Two-Way Street 

“I think sometimes mentorship is simply about reminding people that they don't have to do it alone,” says Aujla. “Mentorship is often thought about or portrayed as you are learning from someone about something, but there's also the ability to develop community and connection through that mentorship.”  

That sense of community often results as a side-effect to mentorship relationships. As first-generation students, Aujla and So’s experiences taught them that the academic environment, while unfamiliar at first, can become a community.  

As a student, Aujla realized many friendships and connections formed during university are often rooted in shared classes and common goals, particularly transitioning from high school to undergraduate studies. However, as a mentor, what stood out as particularly meaningful was discovering connections that transcend the confines of the academic setting.  

“Aaron showed me that you have some control over your life and that you can adapt to new information and change your path,” says Aujla. “Because that was a scary thing for him to do, leaving expectation behind to change paths in transferring from biological sciences to psychology. That stuck with me and made me think that moving forward there is flexibility in career, academics and in life.”   

It also made Aujla feel that his experiences held value; he felt heard and acknowledged as a mentor, with someone considering his learning curve and the decisions he had made, giving added significance to his insights. This was one of the first times that he felt he had someone validate and take his perspectives seriously, raising his confidence significantly moving forward.  

“I ended up being elected the president of the Calgary Medical Students Association,” says Aujla who is now a student at the Cumming School of Medicine, set to graduate in 2024. “I don't think I would have put myself out there before being a mentor, but I kept building confidence in myself that the experiences that I have are impactful.” The confidence gained from being a mentor sparked Aujla’s development in committees, leadership and in teaching. 

Aujla has also observed that, within the medical field, teaching extends beyond imparting knowledge; it embodies this mentorship dynamic. Individual students, like Aujla himself, are likely stepping into similar professional roles as that of their teachers, creating an inherent mentor-mentee relationship. Aujla now finds that he will deliberately seek out individuals like So who he can help as they embark on the initial phases of their educational journey. 

Recognizing the value of both academic alignment and similar life experiences, Aujla has actively sought to offer guidance, believing it could be beneficial in various aspects of both his and the mentees’ lives. 

“I think having a mentee makes you responsible and makes you also reflect on your decisions as a role model, you should also be taking the advice you're giving out — [that] accountability is key,” says Aujla. “Mentorship gives you an opportunity to celebrate some of the things you otherwise might have ignored, or taken for granted, like being a first-generation university student. [You may not think it’s a big deal, but,] for someone else in that same position, hearing your story and your challenges and your successes can be invaluable.” 

Finding community remains a key part of the first leg of any journey. For first-time students, this becomes even more pivotal as they might lack individuals or resources in their lives to offer guidance, inspiration or even just the reassurance that they are on the right path towards academic success. Mentorship provides this opportunity, and often it is a transformative practice not only for the mentees, but for the mentors.  

At its core, mentorship goes beyond just imparting knowledge or advice. It creates a supportive environment where individuals can share experiences, learn from one another and foster a sense of belonging. Most importantly, it is a reciprocal process. While the mentor offers guidance and support, they can also gain a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives and experiences.  

The act of mentoring will often lead to personal growth for the mentors, fostering empathy, refining their leadership skills and even reigniting their own passion for learning. 

Mentorship Month

In alignment with National Mentoring Month, UCalgary Alumni will be hosting a series of Mentoring Month Programs. We also invite you to sign up for Mentor Link! Alumni can mentor current students by sharing their experiences and providing support and could even receive mentorship themselves if they are completing another UCalgary program.