Through the middle of the clouds, I flew. I was on my way back to Cincinnati, OH from my hometown Philadelphia, PA. Flying home on a random weekend from college was, usually, never a good sign. The effort to drive to the airport, be on a flight, and travel back to my house only to quickly return for class on Monday was never quite worth the hassle. But the escape had to happen. I had just run probably the worst college cross country race of my entire life. And this time, there were no excuses.
No iron deficiency detected, no lack of sleep or rest — I was healthy, and for once, my workouts had been showing that I was a varsity runner, finally. But no, I woke up the morning of my last race ever as a Division 1 student-athlete simply not wanting to race.
I wanted to keep my nose in my copy of Sisters in Law, work on my business model, and plan my future. A future where I could fight sexism, help others, and amplify my voice for the greater good of society. For the first time in my life, the sport was getting in the way of my education.
While I was home, I did my long run on one of my favorite paths in my town. My childhood best friend biked next to me for the 10-mile workout, just as she always did. As I finished my run at an average sub-seven minute pace, I laughed. "I don't know how I just ran my worst college race when everything says I shouldn't have." My friend applauded me saying, "Dev, you looked like your old self, you were floating in the air — strong again." I responded to her saying I was contemplating leaving the team because it was no longer what I wanted to do. "Good for you Dev, it is about time you find out what else is out there for you."
Flying back to school only reaffirmed my decision. I was leaving the cross country and track team for good. There was a new beginning calling for me, and I was following it. With the lack of confidence, I had during this time, I decided to educate myself on the plane ride back with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's, We Should All Be Feminists, an eloquent personal essay that uses her own exploration to discover what it means to be a woman in the 21st Century. Though I was in awe of the relatable and poignant content of this piece, I couldn't help but feel a stare over my shoulder from the passenger sitting next to me.
Mr. Strike taught me that if I even wanted a chance of accomplishing any of my goals, I had to always consciously take care of my mental health.
He was an older, white male. He stared at me from the moment I put down the foldable table and placed the bright yellow booklet in front of. I tried to concentrate on finishing it as quickly as possible, wondering if for some reason he was "offended" by me reading such material. I broke the ice, offering him a piece of gum, something I often do to deflect awkward situations.
"No, thank you," he replied.
"Oh my goodness, he is annoyed by me, how much longer on this flight?" I quietly thought to myself, quietly panicking and desperate for a sense of normalcy.
To my surprise, he then smiled and whispered, "I do not think women should have the same rights as men. I think women should have more rights than men."
What?! What did this man just say? Was he joking Was he mocking me? No, he was not mocking me.
With a gentle demeanor, he told me the story of his single mother, a woman that had ingrained in him since childhood that women were powerful, strong, and shouldn't have the same rights as men, but more. "I am a feminist, and everyone should also be a feminist." I later learned that his name was Louie Strike. As I became more at ease, I quickly learned stories about his work, where he was from, how he liked to ski with his wife in Utah during the winters, and just how kind a stranger on a plane can be.
The plane prepared for landing, and when he realized I was a student at Xavier University, his eyes lit up. "I am apart of the Professional Mentorship Program at Xavier. I would be honored to be your mentor for your college career Devi, you show determination." I barely met this person an hour ago, briefly judged him, and hadn't even heard of the program he mentioned. He instructed me how I can apply for him to be my official mentor and to email him the following week.
From then on, we met every day once a month for coffee. Never once was he late, never once did he not have a notebook and pen prepared for our meeting, and never once did he not begin our conversation with, "Are you taking care of your mental health?"
Sometimes our mentors come in ways we least expect. Sometimes they look different from us. Sometimes they aren't even in a similar industry. But sometimes, they are the one person that gives you the secret to the foundation of any success you will ever achieve.
Often times, I had to lie to him. I still feel guilty about that. My college experience included a lot of injustices to me, my friends, and my fight to change the unfairness around us. It deteriorated me. I was good at masking it, but Mr. Strike empathized with the fight I was taking on. However, from the moment he met me, he encouraged me to discover my strength. He taught me how to think strategically on what would benefit my current projects, what opportunities there were for me post-graduation, and supported every direction I wanted to explore. He treated me as if I had self-worth, something that I during that time I did not even treat myself with. Even if I was coming to our coffee meetings post-panic attack or a week after I was released from the hospital for a mental breakdown, Mr. Strike emphasized that mental health came became before anything else.
Mr. Strike taught me that if I even wanted a chance of accomplishing any of my goals, I had to always consciously take care of my mental health. Mr. Strike saw the importance of that care to elevate my potential success in business, health, and relationships. He shared his wisdom with me, because he believed in me, even when I couldn't believe in myself. My Senior year, Mr. Strike accompanied me to our Mentorship Program Banquet, as I was a nominee for Mentee of the Year. It seemed like years since I had seen a man, or anyone, smile for me the way Mr. Strike smiled when the speaker listed my accomplishments.
When they announced another student's name as the winner, Mr. Strike nudged me on the shoulder laughing, "I don't see any more men beating you after this one. I am proud of you."
Sometimes our mentors come in ways we least expect. Sometimes they look different from us. Sometimes they aren't even in a similar industry. But sometimes, they are the one person that gives you the secret to the foundation of any success you will ever achieve, which is why Mr. Louis Strike changed my life from the moment I met him on a plane.
WRITTEN BYDevi Jags