For Johanna Tachas, being an alumni mentor in the STEM Mentor Program is an opportunity to give students more confidence while reflecting on her own career journey.
Johanna Tachas found the experience of being a mentee in the University of Melbourne’s STEM Mentor Program so worthwhile that, four years and a Bachelor of Science (Hons) and Graduate Certificate in Environmental Management later, she has returned as an alumni mentor.
“A big part of mentorship that I find rewarding is building the confidence of students. University equips you with fantastic technical skills, but in terms of those professional skills, I think sometimes we need to be given positive reinforcement or encouragement to say ‘yes, that looks good on a CV’ or to just understand what professional life looks like.”
The STEM Industry Mentoring Program is a career-based informal mentoring program and aims to expand students’ knowledge of, and connection with, the professional world. As a student, Johanna originally signed up as a mentee to discover what a career in the environmental science field would involve and to hear honest reflections from professionals in her chosen field.
“It gave me an opportunity to meet the real person behind the LinkedIn profile or website story, and actually gain an insight into what they do day-to-day. I wanted to connect with some new people and talk to them about their career paths, because everyone’s got very different journeys.”
Johanna developed a passion for science from an early age, which she attributes to being brought up by parents who worked in pharmacology and science teaching respectively. In particular, she was drawn to study a Bachelor of Science because she was interested in how science pushes society into unexplored territory.
After graduation, she joined the Victorian Science and Planning Graduate Program and has now forged a successful career in Victoria’s Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA), where she currently works as a Coastcare Victoria Facilitator. The program supports hundreds of community groups and volunteers working to protect and enhance Victoria’s 2000 kilometres of coastline.
“Being a mentee showed me a whole side of environmental science I didn’t really know existed. It was insightful to see how roles that sit at the cross-section of science and community engagement actually play out. [My current role] bridges multiple of these interests of mine.”
Inspired by her original experience and the opportunity to give back to the science community, Johanna has returned to the program as a mentor.
Helping students identify their passions
A big part of being a mentor is helping build the confidence of students, Johanna says, enabling them to identify transferable skills and navigate graduate job application processes. While students’ immediate networks and family members might be able to help, she notes mentoring connects student mentees with professionals who can give up-to-date advice.
“Often mentors are people who are either involved in recruiting others or have recently successfully applied for work themselves. It just provides insightful and real-time perspectives on recruitment in the field.”
Johanna understands that every mentee has different needs. In her initial meetings with students she takes the time to get to know them, understand their passions, and where they find meaning and interest in the variety of STEM disciplines, to help tailor future sessions. From there, she offers help in developing their CVs and identifying transferable skills they might not realise are relevant.
“It’s all about, how can I help them best articulate their experience in a way that sells their skills? I think when you draw on broader life experiences and provide a bit of that personality in your CV, it’s a lot easier to get that interview or make those initial connections. In the end, it’s about people and communication.”
Johanna has also supported her mentees through desktop research of potential organisations to contact for internships or work experience, and helped students draft introductory emails to employers.
“Finally, I give them some contacts from my own network based on what kinds of roles they might be interested in, so that they could hear not just my career experience but gain some insight into other roles as well.”
A two-way relationship
Participating in the STEM Industry Mentoring Program is a two-way relationship Johanna says, and as much as she helps her students, she also learns new things about herself and her own career. The experience has changed how she interacts with her colleagues at work, for example, who she now sees as potential teachers in a whole range of areas.
“Everybody has an area of expertise, whether it’s within the field they work in or outside of it. It’s about acknowledging everyone’s breadth of experience and wisdom, whether they’re 18 or 80.”
Mentoring has also given her the satisfaction of giving back to the university community, helping students in a similar position to when she was a student, which has prompted her to reflect on her own career journey.
“I’d tell alumni interested in mentoring that participating has been a great way to open up the box of self-reflection. You can understand not just where students might be today, but put yourself in their shoes and think about where you were too, and where you might be going.”
The program is also helping strengthen the field at a time when STEM skills have never been so important, she says. “You’re helping create a more connected field, where we can all learn from each other. That shouldn’t be overlooked. Collaboration is a key part of STEM success.”
Learn more about mentoring at the University.