Mentorship and "At-Bats": Critical Moments on the Path to Success
At Acadeum, we recognize the significant role course sharing plays in boosting student progress and overcoming obstacles that students face in pursuit of a degree. At its core, course sharing is about giving students opportunities to succeed, by offering flexible course options when they need it most. We’re continuously inspired by the registrars, advisors, and faculty across the institutions in our network who meet challenges head-on, providing creative solutions and guidance when a student is struggling.
This post isn’t specific to course sharing; it’s about the critical moment when an educator stepped forward to support a student who fell behind—and the impacts that reverberate afterward. A special thank you to Martha Bujanda, a sixteen-year educator, for sharing her story of progress, achievement, and self-actualization.
Martha Bujanda: Where My Story Begins
As the child of immigrants, I have a heightened awareness that every opportunity granted me comes with an equal or greater obligation to give back. I’ve worked in education for sixteen years—as a teacher and principal—and now serve as Director of New Leadership Development for the Dallas Independent School system. My career has fulfilled me immeasurably, and I’m passionate about what I do. I’ve devoted much of my life to supporting districts where I felt I could contribute most, in urban school districts.
At every school where I’ve held a leadership role, I’ve prioritized initiatives that emphasize the importance of going to college: bringing faculty from local universities to speak to students, showcasing college banners in the entranceway, and more. Growing up, I was lucky: my parents articulated a clear vision and expectation that I would go to college. In immigrating, they had undertaken incredible risks and made sacrifices so their children would have a chance to excel. I realize now how powerful that language is from a parent; without a college education, certain doors remain closed.
Setbacks as an Undergraduate
In 1994, I enrolled at the University of Dallas. Immediately I realized that the academic rigor and faculty expectations were far above my current academic level. Despite my years of honors and AP classes, I had gaps in my learning. Other students came from elite private schools with seemingly unlimited resources and opportunities to hone their writing and critical thinking skills. I came to college driven and intellectually curious, but I hadn’t had enough “at-bats” to reach my potential. Freshman year, my papers came back with D’s.
In an American Politics course first semester, after I’d received another disheartening grade on an assignment, the professor approached me after class to talk about it. At this point, my confidence and excitement about college had deflated. I was worried about failing and had started to question my own fit for higher education. This professor—Robert Manzer—became a mentor when I needed one most, the only professor that year to offer his help when I was falling behind. He was kind and generous with his time, and genuine in his willingness to help, offering precise, point-by-point feedback on my papers to guide improvements. The time he devoted to showing me a path forward meant the most to me—it demonstrated that someone cared about my success and was invested in my growth.
Progress and Mentorship
Over the course of my time at University of Dallas, I took four classes with Professor Manzer, working with him and his TA to refine my analytical writing. This process took years—each time, I felt I was getting the chances (the “at-bats”) I needed to succeed.
Senior year, in a paper for Manzer’s Supreme Court Jurisprudence class, I explored a complex and ambitious topic: a deep dive on the Lemon Test that touched on First Amendment rights, separation of church and state. I received my first A.
Professor Manzer describes this as a lightbulb moment: the contrast between this paper and my earlier work was striking. There was a newfound clarity and sophistication to my argument, a maturity in how I handled difficult material. He was thrilled and encouraging about what he saw as a breakthrough moment in my higher education career. For me, this was a moment after a long road of hard work and persistence, made possible within an environment of trust and support. With enough chances, precise feedback, encouragement, and “at bats,” I’d shown what I was capable of.
A Career in Education
I’m going to fast forward from this moment to 2011 when my career started to unfold in surprising and inspiring ways. With a B.A and a master’s in business administration, I became a teacher, and, subsequently, a principal at an elementary school in Texas. When I started, the school was one of the lowest performing in the state. By the end of my tenure, we’d increased our ranking and increased our results by double-digit gains in core content areas.
Like a college president, a principal sets the culture for a school by deciding who to hire and by coaching those educators to ensure everyone is aligned to the same vision and values. I worked to ensure our community applied an asset-based approach to student success: maximizing the skills kids are bringing to school already, rather than focusing on their deficits.
Seventeen years after I graduated from the University of Dallas, Professor Manzer and I reconnected. He visited early one morning at the elementary school where I was greeting arriving students. As we walked into my office, I handed him something that always sits on the corner of my desk: my senior year “A” paper from his politics class.
That “A” has become more than a grade—it’s a signifier of everything that went into getting my degree and everything we value and celebrate for the students in our district: a growth mindset, a culture of feedback and empathy, and opportunities for true teacher-student mentorship that can change the course of a journey. Professor Manzer has said this moment—seeing the paper on my desk—was the kind of affirmation faculty chase their entire careers.
The successes I’ve experienced are only possible thanks to the mentorship and support I have received throughout my career. What might it look like if every student who falls behind has someone in their corner to provide a safety net and ensure their success?
As educators, we need to catch that talent. We need our teachers and faculty to have the training to help at dire moments, the tools to be able to step in to prevent roadblocks that throw too many students off course, and the opportunities to form authentic, supportive student/teacher relationships. These relationships are what shape potential and possibility.
Are you a faculty member, or administrator, with a story of student progress and success to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org