Finding mentorship: An Academy cadet speaks out

Cadet 1st Class Jake Sortor. (Air Force photo)

Cadet 1st Class Jake Sortor. (Air Force photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Editor's note: Cadet 1st Class Jake Sortor is a former cadet wing commander here. As a cadet, he's played on both the football and the baseball teams, as well as participated in Wings of Green and Wings of Blue, cadet jump programs. Public Affairs staff writer Airman 1st Class Rachel Hammes recently interviewed Sortor on the importance of mentorship. After graduating this spring, Sortor will go to pilot training at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.

What, in your opinion, is the climate in the Air Force toward female cadets?

I think it's been evolving. Personally, I haven't seen any difference between the male and female cadets. When I look at a female cadet, I just see them as a classmate and a peer. I know in the past the military hasn't always included women. Now, though, I don't see a difference in the culture or climate toward female cadets. And I don't think there should be.

Did you have difficulty finding mentorship during your time here?

Maybe, but that was because of how I approached it. When I came here, I was pretty independent and confident in my abilities. I still am, but I quickly realized I couldn't do it all on my own, and I'd need help and mentorship in some areas. Whether it's athletics, military or academics, the Academy really finds something you're not the best at, and it makes you work. I've had to give up some of that mindset, and really try to learn from anyone I could.

Would you say your mentors have been primarily male or female?

My mentors have been both male and female. I could think of so many different opportunities and people I've learned from, and they've been created by both men and women. I was raised by a single mom and I talked to her a lot. I think that's part of why I look to women as mentors - I already had that experience.

Do you think male and female mentors are equally common in the military?

Just by virtue of the nature of the military, and always having to look forward to maintain the superiority of our Air Force, we have to have mentors. In terms of the culture and our jobs, I think everyone is a mentor. It really comes down to our force makeup of males and females. There are more males in the Air Force than females, so obviously there are going to be more male mentors. I don't think that's necessarily a culture issue rather than a numbers issue.

Do you think it is harder for women to find mentorship than men?

It comes down to human nature. If you're looking up to someone else, it's human nature to look for someone you want to be like. So for women, I think they might be more likely to try to find female mentors - again, because of the numbers. I also think it's a two-way street. I think sometimes mentors may look for people who remind them of themselves when they were at that point.

I think we don't have as many women in high leadership roles because women weren't always allowed to take those roles. But more and more women are starting to reach them now. For example, Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson was the first female cadet wing commander here. Last semester, when I was the cadet wing commander, I got to learn a lot from her. If I entered the Academy sooner, there wouldn't have been a female mentor in her position. She mentored me not only as a female leader, but as a former cadet wing commander. And that's the whole basis of what I'm saying - the job and the mission are so critical that gender should be an afterthought, or shouldn't be a thought at all.

How would your time as a cadet be different without mentorship?

I think I would have been a lot less successful. Not to say I've been overly successful, but all the success I have had has been entirely the result of learning from upper class cadets, officers - just the whole Air Force mindset. I came from Seattle, and I didn't come from a military environment. So when I came here, I had to learn everything. I definitely had to be open to mentorship to learn that.

How do you approach mentorship now?

I look for areas I can help and opportunities. Experience is really the best teacher, and I've been lucky to experience the Academy from a lot of different perspectives - coming here as a Prep School cadet who didn't get in the first time. Then when I came in as a cadet, and I was able to walk on to the football and baseball teams. So then I got to see the Academy from the intercollegiate athlete perspective. Then I got injured, and I got to see the Academy from an airfield perspective, as part of Wings of Blue. I've seen the Academy from a lot of different perspectives, and I understand a lot of the intricacies of each viewpoint a cadet can see from. When I look back through all of those experiences, I can see the way younger cadets see, and I can try to provide them with those perspectives. I think mentorship can be really natural, but when it's forced it can turn people off.

What kind of issues to you bring to a mentor now, and how do they differ from the issues you had at the beginning of your time as a cadet?

I think I've figured out how to be a cadet pretty well. I'm definitely a little wide-eyed and apprehensive about the future - becoming a lieutenant, and hopefully a pilot. When you come to the Academy, you're really just trying to figure out how to do well. I feel pretty confident about graduation now. But then it's real life, in the real Air Force. The need for mentorship for me is still there, it's just focused on a different area.

Do you mentor others now? Are they primarily male or female? What issues do you help them with?

I help a lot with the Wings of Green jump team, which is the group of second class cadets learning how to skydive and how to become jumpmasters. I've been really involved with their upgrade process, and giving them advice. They put the students in a really stressful environment for a year where you have to learn how to skydive, but also how to teach it. I remember it being the toughest year here, but also the most rewarding because I learned so much. I've been really involved with trying to help them out through that tough time.

At the airfield, it's really both males and females. I think that's kind of the thing with mentorship in the Air Force - the military operations is so mission-oriented and results-based, so mentorship is key to maintaining that. We are the most advanced Air Force in the world, but in order to maintain that we constantly have to be mentoring, so when we leave that excellence continues. So I don't think there should be any discrepancies between male and female - if we're not employing our best assets because of gender, then I think we're kind of foolish. If there are issues, it's definitely good to bring it up so we can deal with it. But the mission is so important that gender shouldn't affect it.

Do you have tips for others hoping to find mentors?

I'd mostly say be open to learning. I started to find success when I realized I couldn't do it all on my own and realized I needed to learn as much as I possibly could. I think upper leadership really wants to be there to help you out. You just have to be open to accepting the help, because I think it's there.