A student drops his backpack and takes a seat in Ralph Penn's office. Across the desk, the San Jacinto College computer information technology professor leans back in his chair, hands folded, smooth jazz playing softly in the background.
Penn studies the student, then gets to the point.
"What's the reason you're in college?" he asks. "How can I help you achieve that goal?"
In some ways, mentoring is a far cry from Penn's original plan to play the trumpet professionally. In other ways, it's not. Like the military trumpet in ancient times, Penn has spent the last 25 years helping students find their way.
Penn traces his first mentors to early band directors who held him accountable academically.
"They always told me whatever they did for me I was to do for others," he said.
In college, he chased music before ultimately switching to computer science. What he lacked in faculty mentors he found in fraternity graduates who were thriving in their careers and willing to advise him.
Fast-forward to 1997. Already an experienced programmer, Penn landed a San Jac programmer analyst position, then computer science instructor position at the South Campus. Since then, he has not only introduced students to programming and networking but also given them the direction he once lacked.
Mentoring has ranged from advising student clubs and meeting one-on-one with students to volunteering for organized programs like Men of Honor and Mosaic, which launched in fall 2021.
"From day one, that opportunity has always been there to mentor," he said. "It's just had different names."
Penn avoids prying into personal issues, instead listening and asking the right questions. He understands challenges. Coming from a single-parent household with seven siblings, he was the first to pursue college. Often, he was the only Black student in his college classes. He learned to take advantage of opportunities rather than settling.
Today, he balances empathy with accountability.
"Students have to help themselves," he said. "I've been there: I had to want it and seek it out."
His mentee Sochima Ifedikwa is the prime example. Penn steered the lost student to his first class and helped him navigate community college. Determined to succeed, Ifedikwa welcomed counsel and even mentored his own peers. Now he is pursuing higher degrees to become a software engineer.
Does Penn turn to mentors himself? Yes, he points to leaders from former South Campus president Dr. Adena Loston, the first Black president in San Jac's history, to his current department head, Dr. Roger Watkins.
"Sometimes we don't want to seek help ourselves," he said. "We want to carry a load alone. But we have to be able to go to others."
Although Life 101 is not in his official course load, Penn teaches it all the same. Mentoring might seem far removed from a musical career, yet it's tuning for life.
"It helps me to know I've done my part," he said. "This is the reason I chose to go into education."
Read other profiles in the Chancellor's Report to the Community.
I equate community with family. I'm part of the San Jac family and computer information technology community. It's the big picture what we're trying to achieve and how we're achieving it. I want to make sure I'm assisting the community in reaching its goal.