When a mentor dies

by Cynthia Bulik, PhD

Founding Director, UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders

I picked up the Winter 2018-19 Notre Dame Magazine, browsing through the articles, and finding a few I wanted to give my full attention to, but then I saw a picture of a kind, patient, brilliant mentor of mine, Donald C. Sniegowski, English Professor and associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame. I dove right into the article, somehow skipping the headline. When I came upon the phrase “fondly remembered,” I realized it was an obituary and the header was “Deaths in the Family”. On some level I have been wondering when this day would come as I have been catching myself looking at the Deaths in the Family column more frequently, but that could also just be a function of my age.

When I give career coscreen shot 2019-01-10 at 8.08.04 pmunseling talks, I always encourage people to create their own academic family tree—to show who your mentors were and who their mentors were and what pearls of wisdom they gifted to you that have shaped your career or your life. Here’s my entry for Dean Sniegowski. Rhodes Scholar, two sport varsity athlete, specialist in Victorian poetry and African literature—how did this person end up being one of the most influential mentors that this psychologist has ever had? There was basically zero overlap in our interests. Lesson number one from him was you can be a great mentor to people in a completely different field! In fact, until my post-docs, I never had a mentor in eating disorders. Diversity in your mentorship circle is brilliant!

The picture in his obituary by Gary Mills captures the essence of what made him truly amazing as a mentor. I first met him when I was assigned to his section of a mandatory “Ideas, Values, and Images” class. The class was designed to bring sophomores from across Notre Dame together from all majors and colleges to expand their horizons and their ability to think critically, creatively, and broadly. I met folks in that class with whom I would never have crossed paths otherwise. Technically, I could have gotten out of the class due to incoming credits, but after talking with Dean Sniegowski, I was sold and downright enthusiastic about the class.

As a teacher, he would present a thought, like a wrapped package in the middle of the table, and then ask us to unwrap it with our own perspectives and opinions. Sometimes the class was downright frightening as he would push us (and encourage us to push each other) to hone our thoughts and challenge our own biases. He valued each of our perspectives—psychology, English, physics majors all became comfortable sharing and challenging our ideas. Above all, he was patient, thoughtful, and deeply kind.

I didn’t have many crises during undergrad, but at one point I was advised (not by Dean Sniegowski!) that, “Nothing will ever become of you if you don’t go to medical school.” So I came back the next semester, showed up in his office, he asked me a lot of questions, but supported me adding in pre-med classes on top of my already packed schedule. Then about a year later, when I decided that this pre-med stuff wasn’t for me, that I want to do research. He calmly walked me through the decision tree, and ultimately supported me in pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology. I am sure he would have supported me either way, he just wanted to make sure that I was thinking about it properly and paying attention to my own feelings about my future.

The pearl of wisdom that Dean Sniegowski gave me appeared in his letter of recommendation for me when I applied for PhD programs. The letter was fat with accolades, but one line stood out. He wrote, “Her biggest weakness is also her biggest strength, and that is, she has no idea how good she is.” The sentence is like a Rorschach, every time I go back and read it or think about it, an alternative interpretation hits me. When I read it as an undergrad, I just thought it meant that he must have thought I was pretty smart and also pretty humble…maybe too humble. In grad school when I reflected back on his letter, I focused on the weakness part of the sentence, and I started to realize that if you do not have confidence in what you know, you will be at a disadvantage. That was a lesson amplified by another clinical mentor at Berkeley. But with Dean Sniegowski’s passing, I layer yet another interpretation onto his pearl, and that is that despite being accomplished, I am not arrogant, and I continue to realize that, “What I don’t know about eating disorders could fill libraries.” Another pearl from another mentor, Prof Steve Hinshaw at Berkeley. Once we start labeling ourselves as experts, we close our eyes to new knowledge.

The world has lost a very special man, one who has touched the lives of many undergraduate and graduate students over the years. It was the Luck of the Irish that landed me in his section of that sophomore class, but it was his graciousness, intelligence, and compassion that made him one of the best mentors and role models that I have had the privilege to learn from. Rest in peace Dean Sniegowski.