City Year AmeriCorps members like Tj Sandstrom hone their mentoring skills every day serving in schools across the country. They support and tutor students, welcome them to school, nurture positive relationships with them, and run afterschool programs and whole school activities that enhance school climate and culture. Tj, who serves at City Year Chicago, last year sought an opportunity to get coached himself with the help of Deloitte, a professional services organization and longtime supporter of City Year. The monthly sessions with professionals at Deloitte gave Tj and his fellow AmeriCorps members the chance to polish their elevator pitches and resumes and strengthen their networking skills at the organization’s offices in Chicago. Several City Year alumni have been hired by Deloitte after they completed their year of service, including Rachel Hess, who has previously shared her journey on our blog.
Tj, 24, recently shared his insights on the importance of mentoring. This year, Tj is serving at Funston Elementary School on Chicago’s Northwest side for his second year with City Year. The Chicago native graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a double major in psychology and comparative world literature and hopes someday to work in consulting, especially in client-facing roles.
What’s one thing you have learned as a mentor?
Tj Sandstrom (TS): One thing I learned last year, my biggest lesson, is that the way I have always known to do things, what I’ve been taught myself, is a way, but not necessarily the way, or the best way. It’s only one way, and other people have another way. The beauty of the world is that we can continue to build upon all these ways of doing things. It’s also a huge myth that a mentee can reach the same place as their mentor by doing things in the same way as their mentor. It’s very powerful to have differences between mentors and mentees in how they do things.
You trekked by train and bus for an hour across town to get to the coaching sessions at Deloitte, so you were making a big investment of your time, given you also serve full-time at a school. How did you prepare yourself to get the most out of being coached?
TS: Number one is know yourself. Know your own values, take the time to sit down and write down, ‘This is what I value. This is what brought me to City Year or brought me to some other employment.’ Do a self-assessment. What excites me? What do I want to learn? What am I missing? Once you know that foundation and your aspirations, talk to as many people as you can, listen to their stories and tell your own story. Reach out and don’t feel afraid you’ll look foolish. Give it the time and effort just to try.
This attitude is the result of many hours and years of genuine self-reflection and not being easy on myself – not saying ‘I made a mistake and will give up on that forever.’ Instead I say, ‘I made a mistake and want to figure out what I can do better.’
A huge influence on this for me is I am transsexual, and it took me a lot of time with myself to figure it out. I’d been living a completely different role from who I am. So it’s still hard and I’m still growing and figuring myself out. And I felt I didn’t have a choice. I had to sit back and reflect. But I did have a choice. I could have said ‘forget it.’ But I want to take care of myself so that the other people that care about me have someone to take care of them.
What brought you back to a second year at City Year, where you took on the role of a team leader, who also acts as a mentor to first-year colleagues in addition to the students you support?
TS: I realized being at the school was the most consistent thing in a lot of my students’ lives. I truly feel like the joy that I share with the students gives me life. And I had an amazing team leader and impact manager last year, so the ups and downs were worth it. I wanted to return as a team leader so that I could make that experience possible for others who are looking for it and share what I was given.
You worked on skills like resume building, cover letters, networking and social media presence with Deloitte professionals in the mentoring sessions, and have even kept in touch with a few of them since then to talk about your career goals. What was your biggest takeaway from the Deloitte activities?
TS: The elevator pitch. I haven’t perfected it, but being able to express who you are – and what you do and why you do it – is absolutely part of being able to continue to develop yourself.
What’s your favorite part of your elevator pitch as you look forward to working eventually in the private sector yourself?
TS: I love how open-ended my elevator pitch is. I open with a true and raw beginning, emphasizing compassion and patience as qualities that others have shown me. I then move on to the now, and how my personal goal is to create a better future with and for others. I add suggested ways of achieving a difference, and then create that bridge between myself and whoever I’m talking with.
With such a short amount of time, it’s imperative that you know what you want to say and plan the intention of how you’d like to say it. Here is my most recent draft:
“My life has been guided by a slew of misunderstandings, but by way of others’ compassion and patience, I have made it to where I am today. Now, I have the power to listen, and the responsibility to accelerate toward a brighter future. Service, connection and seeking to understand – these are strategies we can all use to make a difference. And now I ask you, what can we do to give back today?”