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Faculty mentors help demystify the road toward retirement

As nursing professor Susan Shapiro (right) began thinking about retirement, she found a supportive mentor in Helen O’Shea (left), a professor emeritus who taught for 40 years at Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. Emory Photo/Video

When Susan Shapiro began thinking about retiring from Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing about five years ago, her first objective was seeing through a federally funded research project. 

Project funding would run through June 2016, and Shapiro, who at the time was serving as a clinical professor and assistant dean in the School of Nursing and a corporate director for research in Emory Healthcare Nursing, envisioned following that trajectory toward retirement.

However, about six months before her anticipated retirement, she was invited to attend an Emeritus College presentation intended to help Emory employees begin thinking about what retirement could actually look like — not so much the financial implications, but the practical aspects about how her life could change.

She was also offered the opportunity to be paired with a pre-retirement mentor, an Emory faculty member who had already walked the road toward retirement and could answer and pose some important and practical questions, including some she’d never considered.

That’s how Shapiro began meeting informally with Helen O’Shea, a professor emerita who retired in 2011 after 40 years of teaching at Emory’s School of Nursing. 

O’Shea knew the transition retirement represented — how daunting it could seem from the outside and how rewarding it could actually be once it arrived.

It was through her work on the Emory University Emeritus College executive committee that O’Shea had first heard a colleague, Pat Douglass, describe the need for such a program. Working with Paula Gomes, executive director of Emory’s Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) and Marilyn Hazzard Lineberger, director of FSAP services, the committee pulled together a three-hour training program that is now required for faculty mentors. 

“When the call came, I was first in line,” O’Shea says. “I had been both a department chair and program director in the School of Nursing, mentoring a lot of folks over time, so I knew the value in it.” 

‘What can I do next?’

Over the past year, the Emeritus College has trained 14 pre-retirement mentors who’ve met with some 19 faculty members, providing a free, confidential service open to all Emory faculty.

The trained faculty mentors, who are also members of the Emeritus College, represent many different units of the university: two from the School of Nursing; six from the Emory College of Arts and Sciences; one from Oxford College; four from the Emory School of Medicine; and also a senior administrator. 

For faculty members who’ve devoted their lives to the academy — literally working within a university setting since they were 18 years old — retirement may seem like a great unknown, acknowledges O’Shea. Pre-retirement mentors volunteer their time to help demystify the experience.

“When faculty members are considering if they are ready to retire, we help them think it through with some basic questions: What do you wish you could do if you had more spare time? What kind of things do you enjoy doing?”

Through three sessions — or more, if needed — mentors talk about facing change, how to cope with feelings of anxiety or depression, shifting self-identity, the importance of social networks, and how to find both balance and a new purpose through retirement. 

While some mentees have clear expectations, others are just beginning to grapple with their own questions. “It’s a matter of creating a comfortable relationship where people can ask the questions they want,” O’Shea says. “We don’t give advice, in the sense of ‘you ought to do this.’ The person who has to live with the decision is the one in charge.” 

Efforts are made to match prospective mentees and mentors by academic areas of interest and, often, gender. And confidentiality is key. The idea that a faculty member is beginning to consider retirement isn’t shared with anyone else in the university community — an important aspect of the program, says O’Shea.

Although Emory’s FSAP also presents pre-retirement information addressing psychosocial and emotional considerations through various community programs and workshops, the pre-retirement faculty mentoring program serves a unique role, says Gomes, who notes that meeting with peers creates a level of comfort. 

 “This is a wonderful collaboration that emerged out of a real need,” she says.

“So many of the faculty have been part of the academy their whole lives,” she adds. “Their identity is very much part of their profession, career and the community they establish within the Emory environment. And they can really struggle with ‘What do I do next?’”

This program gives them “a graduated way to approach retirement,” notes Gomes.

In addition to the pre-retirement workshops, Emory FSAP offers coaching services to those contemplating retirement. Emory’s Department of Human Resources also sponsors pre-retirement workshops that feature speakers on topics such as Social Security, Medicare and contacts with financial planning vendors, says Lineberger.

But with pre-retirement mentors, faculty members can also talk about more personal aspects of stepping toward retirement.

“Oftentimes, people don’t think about creating a strategic plan for retirement beyond the financial aspects, but it can be eye-opening to think that there is life after work as you know it and all the psychological, social and emotional components at play,” Lineberger says.

Help graduating to the next phase

Emory biology professor Gray Crouse, who also serves as Emeritus College director, understands the uncertainties faculty members may feel in contemplating retirement.

“I am not yet retired and until becoming director of the Emeritus College, I viewed retirement as the end of my faculty career,” he acknowledged. “However, I have learned from our members that retirement can be a transition to a new phase of faculty life, and one that can be just as rewarding — and sometimes more so — than the previous phases.”

In fact, some Emeritus College members have become even more productive in their scholarly and creative work than before retirement, he notes, while others have discovered entirely new interests and activities.

“I’m really excited to see the growth of our pre-retirement mentoring program because no one understands what it is like to retire as a faculty member better than those who’ve already done it successfully,” he says.

For Shapiro, who still enjoys an Emory affiliation as an adjunct faculty member, there was tremendous value in having a peer to talk to about retirement. 

“I met with Helen to talk, two, three, maybe four times, and what I really appreciated was her good, practical information,” she says. “I came to think of retirement in the same way I thought about graduating from college.

“I decided this was another opportunity for a complete change in what my life looks like. And I thought about it not as the end of something, but graduating to the next phase, which I was willing to let unfold on its own.” 

When Shapiro was presented with an opportunity to work beyond her initial retirement timeline, O’Shea advised her to set very clear boundaries about how her time would be spent and what she would and wouldn’t do.

“That was probably the best single piece of advice I received,” she reflects. “That’s the beauty of the mentoring program — it makes explicit what people are hesitant to talk about. You are sitting down with people who have been through it and have made a successful transition.” 

Shapiro decided to use the temporary assignment to ease into retirement, stopping her fulltime work in January 2017 and continuing half-time through last June. “That really helped with the transition,” she says. 

And she’s delighted with her emerging life. “Your whole sense of time is different when you retire,” Shapiro explains. “For the most part, I get up when I get up. I’ve discovered that my washing machine actually works on Tuesday as well as Sunday. I found a company to work with as a consultant and I have a board position in a professional organization that matters to me.” 

Suddenly, there is time — time for walks with friends or to visit a new coffee shop with a good book. “I never used to hang out in coffee shops,” she insists.

Shapiro laughs when she recalls the night her retirement was announced during Friday services at her Midtown synagogue. From the pulpit, the rabbi observed, “There is a classic rabbinical response to that, you know.” 

“What’s that?” she responded from the sanctuary.

“What committee would you like to serve on?” he replied.

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