Professor Betina Szkudlarek on Helping Her Mentees Find Their Breakthrough Moments
When we talk about mentors, we probably envision someone who is able to set us on the path to success armed with a clear, foolproof set of instructions. Professor Betina Szkudlarek certainly has knowledge and experience to share – her CV spans everything from NGO management to the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations and an impressive array of accolades – but her own career path has not been so straightforward, and her approach to mentoring seems to reflect that.
“I really wanted to be a journalist; that’s the master’s degree I have, Political Science and Journalism. Then I started working at an international student association, and that’s how I discovered my passion for intercultural communication. Totally accidentally, I got the opportunity to meet one of the thought leaders in this domain, Professor Geert Hofstede. Seeing my passion for intercultural communication, he said “Why don’t you contact a colleague of mine at Erasmus University in Rotterdam?” I followed his advice, and a few months later, I started my PhD in the Netherlands.”
Betina’s willingness to follow her interests wherever they may take her has clearly served her well. But her story is not one of random, happy coincidences; rather, it is a series of opportunities and choices, each one set up by those that came before it, and each one of which could have gone any number of possible ways.
For all her hard work, talent, and natural curiosity, Betina is the first to point out the role that chance has played in her journey. “I’m fully aware that I’m extremely privileged to be where I am today. So I hope that I can have a small contribution, to create similar opportunities for people that did not have as much luck and were not as fortunate as I was.”
This realisation is part of what drove her towards supporting refugees, and in particular towards mentoring. “I always believe that privilege comes with responsibility. So this is just a small way of expanding what I do in my academic career to really get hands on with supporting others.”
Our conversation is full of interesting digressions. In answering our questions, Betina might make several detours before arriving back at the question topic, as if she had been heading there all along. We discuss her childhood in Poland, where she learned knitting at school, a skill that her 7-year-old son discovered during the most recent lockdown (“I think there would be a lot more love and compassion spread if we were engaging in those projects of heart, such as making a scarf for one you love”). She is encouraged by the growing focus that she sees on diversity and inclusion in Australian workplaces but does not sugarcoat the very real challenges (“Nowhere in the world are there equal opportunities for everyone”).
One subject on which she is particularly insightful is the intersectionality of disadvantage faced by refugees. “What I think a lot of people don’t realise is that we talk about ethnic background, and then we talk about race, and then we talk about religion, but what if all or most of those elements together play a role? A refugee would often fall under so many of those individual categories, and lost so much before arriving in their new home countries.”
For Betina, this inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to see complex issues for what they are is part of a larger, deeply worrying trend.
“For years now, I’ve been concerned about the increasingly polarised debate around all issues; you’re either for or against, there’s very little of the grey zone where you could sort of understand someone else’s opinion.
“Most of us believe that our world view is quite balanced, but to be very honest, I think most of us are victims of this polarised perspective. So the advice I would give to my younger self is to more attentively listen to, and try to understand, other people’s perspectives, as different as those perspectives might be from what I believe.
“I have learned a lot from people whose worldviews are very different from mine, and [learned] what motivates those different beliefs. To provide the best solutions, more systemic solutions for our society, we really need to carefully listen to everyone, their fears, because often it is fears that motivate them.”
What underwrites Betina’s answers, and indeed her career, is a tendency to question, test, and challenge not just the opinions and beliefs of others, but also her own. If she hadn’t been open to reconsidering her journalistic aspirations, her life today would be very different.
“I recently talked to my mentee about this, just to say “It’s absolutely normal not to know what you want to do, or realising that what you think you want to do is not the case.”
“That’s something I really want to stress with my mentees, is to talk with many people, to engage, because you never know where you might find that breakthrough and that moment where something magical happens.”