The power of a mentor

February 4, 2021
By Dr. Leslie Mark, '16

At the age of 3, I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I loved to fix things, and my early memories involve helping my dad while he fixed cars. My father is a brilliant senior mechanical engineer, and my mother an astute accountant. Their strong work ethic and support of one another served as strong role models to me in my formative years in Loudoun County, Virginia.

Growing up with a younger sibling with autism was also an incredibly formative part of my childhood. It taught me to be empathetic and to see the world from other people’s perspectives. My father always reminded me that our success is tied to our interactions with others. “People remember how you make them feel,” he would say. I used this as my mantra in my pursuit of becoming a doctor.

As a Richmond Scholar with both Boatwright and Oliver Hill designations, mentorship was a part of my program at UR. But this was just one way I found mentorship at Richmond. I acquired many mentors, and they all helped foster my growth in different areas of my life.

Biology professor April Hill was a mainstay from early in my time at Richmond. She gave me the opportunity to work in her lab, which led to my first publication in a major scholarly journal and helped prepare me for medical school. Tinina Cade, associate vice president for student development and multicultural affairs, was an essential personal mentor who made sure I knew the important legacy of Oliver Hill, a lawyer who laid the groundwork for the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. This particularly resonated with me because my mother grew up in the same county that Hill represented.

Other mentors were every bit as exceptional, including John Vaughan, Bertram Ashe, the late Bill Myers — a mentor who believed in me from my beginnings as a science student — and many professors in the School of Business.

Having the right person in your corner is invaluable.

Make no mistake: To do well, I had to put in the hard work necessary to succeed as a science major and incorporate my interests in business with a minor. These individuals and others at Richmond showed me how connections with those who have walked a path before us can help shape our own journey.

Before leaving Richmond, I was able to begin one more mentorship that was essential to my success in medical school: Betty Neal Crutcher, our presidential spouse, a cross-cultural mentor, and a powerhouse in the health sciences in her own right. At the time, I could not imagine how important Dr. Crutcher would become.

When pursuing medicine, you face obstacles and are forced to push past failures and fears. The people tasked with advising you are not always encouraging and can be negative. With the wrong advice, you can be steered toward a specialty that will tolerate you rather than a specialty you truly love.

Having the right person in your corner is invaluable because they can show you the light at the end of the tunnel even before you can see it. That is what the mentorship of Dr. Crutcher was like. Yes, I learned the material, learned how to care for patients, and studied for test after test, but that additional bit of hope and encouragement of hers made the difference that kept me going. She helped me understand that I was not the first person to go through it, nor was I alone.

An illustration of a young black woman. She is wearing a lab coat and stethoscope, and is walking up a hill on a dark night, surrounded by bright stars and lightning bugs, with a full moon lighting her way.We had phone conversations once a month. Regardless of where she was, Dr. Crutcher made the time, which showed that she valued the relationship. I valued it as well and made sure to respect her time. I recorded takeaways from each call and sent them to her before our next meeting so we never lost time catching up. This structure ensured that neither of us was too burdened. By reflecting on what we discussed, we could see growth and progression.

Over time, our mentoring relationship became more personal as we learned more about each other’s backgrounds and families. She taught me the “3 V’s”: values, virtues, and vision, components of mentorship that she has written extensively about. We were testing this theory in our interactions and seeing its benefits.

Cross-cultural mentoring is another element she discusses in her writings. As a Black woman interested in pursuing surgery, I knew I could not assume that I would find only mentors who looked like me. Black physicians make up just 4% of the physician workforce in the U.S. Black women make up less than 2% of the American physician workforce. I also did not want only mentors who looked like me, as I would be treating a diverse population of people. It was important for me to find mentors from as many backgrounds as possible. It also became important to me to research the reasons that matriculation rates for African Americans into medical school have remained stagnant and even declined — and to help change it.

Medical school is a balance of ability and opportunity. Many aspire to go, but very few get the opportunity. Staying in medical school requires learning to study efficiently and having mentors along the way who help student doctors navigate future situations. For me, the recurring challenge was not ability or finances, but access to mentorship. Having at least one mentoring relationship in which both parties saw value, virtue, and vision was instrumental in my success to graduation.

With time, I have developed my own cross-cultural mentorships with deans, program directors, and other world-renowned physicians. On the path to my M.D., my family, Dr. Crutcher, and other mentors reminded me of my potential, and their support inspired me to never give up.

Dr. Leslie Mark, '16, graduated from Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in May 2020. She is now a general surgery resident in Morristown, New Jersey.