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University Scholars mentoring “tree” takes root

Left to right, Dr. Barbara Schowen, mentor; Sandhu Sukhindervir, mentee;
Whitney Baker, mentor and mentee

The University Scholars program, in its 34th year, long has produced the fruit of many mentoring relationships, but not until now has it produced a mentoring “tree.”

The mentoring “tree” took root in 1992 when Whitney Baker, a 1994 Honors graduate, became a University Scholar. She was assigned her mentor, Dr. Barbara Schowen, in the chemistry department, who is now Professor Emerita of chemistry and with whom Whitney has stayed in touch since her graduation.

Whitney is now the head of conservation services and a librarian for the KU Libraries, and she herself has become a mentor in the University Scholars. Her mentee is junior Sandhu Sukhindervir, a junior in the University Honors Program.

And thus Dr. Schowen mentoring Whitney who mentors Sandhu equals one thriving mentoring “tree.”

In keeping with the interdisciplinary focus of the University Scholars, on paper these don’t appear to be likely mentoring matches. But in actuality, all three report that they have reaped great benefit from one another.

It began with Whitney, a chemistry and Spanish major, being matched with Dr. Schowen. Accustomed to working with pre-med students for advice, Dr. Schowen admits to being a bit surprised about Whitney’s interest not in medicine but in book preservation. Nonetheless, a longtime advocate for KU Libraries, Dr. Schowen jumped right in with Whitney’s interest.

“She took me to the Spencer Research Library’s 25th anniversary dinner as her date. She was very open to this weird career I ended up choosing. She cared, but she didn’t control me,” Whitney says of Dr. Schowen.

“She was one of our very top chemistry majors,” Dr. Schowen says of Whitney. “Many people thought she ought to get a Ph.D. in chemistry. But early on, she had this interest about books and conservation. I found that really interesting – there is a lot of important chemical science involved in the preservation of books and paper.”

Whitney and Dr. Schowen kept in touch after Whitney finished at KU and began her graduate work at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Schowen became director of the Honors Program in 1996. Whitney spoke at KU’s American Chemical Society banquet in 1999 and stayed at Dr. Schowen’s house, as well as relied on Dr. Schowen to provide her with reference letters as her career progressed. Whitney began her position at KU in 2002 and attended Dr. Schowen’s retirement party.

Last fall, Whitney won the Anschutz-Budig Outstanding Librarian Award, and Dr. Schowen attended the ceremony.

“It meant a lot to see her there – someone who knew me. It felt full circle in a way,” Whitney says.

Although Whitney has traveled almost the full circle with her mentor, she has just completed the first year of working with her mentee, Sandhu, a University Scholar who has a double major in chemistry and Classics – a combination of science and humanities much like Whitney did.

The two have met several times since being matched in early 2013, and they exchange e-mails in between meetings.

“I don’t know if he needs the same things out of a mentor relationship that I needed,” Whitney says. “It’s been interesting to be on the other side, having the outside perspective.”

For Sandhu’s part, he admits to being “surprised” to be matched with a librarian for a mentor.

“We actually have a lot in common. Talking to her, we have found a lot of similarities – some personal, some professional. Whoever put us together did a really good job,” Sandhu says.

The two read a book to discuss, but they both admit that what they like about their meetings is how their conversations evolve and take on many tangents.

“I haven’t had a real adult person to talk to, so that’s kind of nice to be able to discuss life in general,” Sandhu says. “Whitney clearly intends for this to be a long-term thing.”

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