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From student to mentor: the other side of the fence

A few weeks ago I was asked by a professor of Algonquin’s Graphic Design program to visit the college and do portfolio reviews with some of their 2nd and 3rd year students. As a 2021 graduate of this program, I have only been in the industry full-time for about 2.5 years. The imposter syndrome came in hot — thoughts like “I don’t have enough experience,” “I’m not going to give good advice,” and “I don’t know what I’m going to say” raced through my mind. Not to mention that I have never experienced a formal portfolio review myself. But I am a firm believer in doing things scared, so I said yes. 

Embracing the Challenge: Saying Yes to Portfolio Reviews

On the morning of the event I found out that the format was more of a working session, but that there would also be a small Q&A panel beforehand. The 11 alumni that were there to provide feedback and help build students’ portfolios would be speaking in front of the group of ~70 people. I’ve spoken to a group of students of the program before, which was also anxiety-inducing, but the feeling was heightened with the awareness that I would also be speaking in front of industry peers who had years — and in some cases decades — more experience than myself.

Well, I was already there and what was I going to do? Back out? I guess I could have. Instead, I tried to remember the saying that goes something like “You wouldn’t be offered a seat at the table if you didn’t belong at it.” Not only that, but as previously mentioned, I recognized there were people there with various amounts of experience in the industry, and I just happened to be the one with the smallest amount. That didn’t mean that I had nothing to offer. I had different experiences prior to entering the industry, and my journey was different than everyone else’s. I started freelancing and working in part-time design positions after my first year in the program. On top of that, I knew I had a unique perspective from my many years of hiring experience prior to entering the program.

Facing the Panel: Navigating a Unique Setting

Throughout the event many students came to my table to seek advice and I did the best I could with the small amount of time I had with each. I tried to make their time valuable, ask insightful questions, and provide actionable feedback. There were many students who were happy to have open discussions about their work, were accepting of feedback, and who asked further questions. Others were not as open-minded, which I admit was slightly frustrating. During my 3 years in the program we were encouraged to not take feedback personally, and I clung to that advice. The ability to accept constructive criticism has helped me push designs far past what I originally came up with, and has helped me to advance in my career. In addition, these students’ resistance to consider my feedback made me question why they were attending the event. Then I remembered how, as a new student, I would get protective of my work at times. How none of us start out being perfectly willing or able to openly discuss our design decisions, or know when the right time is to defend them. I had the realization that maybe they were here to strengthen this exact skill. It’s very possible that some students reconsidered the feedback given to them by myself and others after leaving the event. 

By about halfway through the event I had come to realize that I felt comfortable. My imposter syndrome was naturally fading, and sure enough, the last student I spoke with told me that I gave her the best advice she had received that day. Not to say that none of the other designers provided good advice, but maybe this student hadn’t previously asked them the same question, or maybe I interpreted it differently. Or — and this is the most difficult possibility to consider of them all when imposter syndrome is present — maybe I simply gave her the best advice. Either way, knowing that my presence at the event positively impacted her experience made all of the anxiety and self-doubt worth it. It helped me to realize that I do have something to offer, and I will be holding onto that going forward.