I hate the word mentor. It cheapens the unique relationship that two individuals have. Why would I want something that millions of people have? (Except the iPhone. I want an iPhone.) When I think of mentors, I think of old men hunched over their desks, engaging youth in philosophical discussion. Or I think of high schoolers playing basketball with little kids from a bad part of town. Perhaps part of my disdain for the term stems from the fact that my mentor was nothing like either one of those examples.

That being said, Ken Joseph, the admissions coordinator of UMD’s College Park Scholars program, passed away suddenly Thursday.

Coming into Maryland as a freshman, it was easy to get lost in the sea of nervous, awkward 18 year olds. But walking into my first Media, Self and Society colloquium, all of that nervousness dissolved. Waiting for us in the room were Ken and Dr. Kalyani Chadha, who greeted us with, “Hello, Melissa,” “Hello, Sarah” and on and on. They spent the entire summer memorizing our pictures, just to be able to greet us all by name on the first day of class.

Even though Ken was the admissions coordinator for all of the Scholars programs, he had a special interest in Media, Self and Society. He was at every class, providing commentary, witticisms and occasionally tubs of ice cream, much to the joy of the 80 Media scholars.

This morning when I woke up, I checked the Facebook group that was created more than four years ago, “Friends of Ken Joseph.” Ken was incredibly anti-Facebook and was completely embarrassed when he first found out about the group. When he discovered it, he took the time to write an e-mail to all of the Media scholars in the group — and by the way, it should be said that all of Ken’s e-mails were legendary (I’ve got three dozen of them saved on my computer). Freshman year, we would print them out and tape them up on the walls because they were completely absurd. Here’s part of Ken’s reaction to the Facebook group:

“I’m flattered … I think it’s hilarious … And, I’m a bit scared. After all, where can I go from here? How can I possibly hope to surpass having one of you refer to me as a “pimp?” (please, Matt, don’t answer that) I’m afraid that life as I know it can get no better, and given that I plan to live for a at least a few more years, what do I have to look forward to? It’s not like the Tigers are ever going to be in contention for a pennant again. It’s not like Bill Gates is going to decide to give me a significant percentage of his fortune (of course, if he tried to transfer it to my account electronically, my bank would probably have to download some sort of MS Windows Service Pack 3 Update, which would promptly crash the bank’s computers and delete the meager funds that I do possess). It’s not like Ricky Martin is ever going to rejoin Menudo. Uh, let’s just forget that last part, shall we? So, I guess it’s all downhill from here. Perhaps next I’ll achieve cult status (no matter what I say, don’t drink the grape Kool-aid). White robes and flying saucers for everyone!”

Ken was a lot of things to a lot of people. Freshman year, he knew I was looking for a job, and found me one in the Scholars office, where I worked for the next year and a half. A year after he got me the job, he encouraged me to work fewer hours in order to take an internship on Capitol Hill. Ken was always the one who would listen with open ears, and who could provide sound, adult advice while seeing the world through a 20 year old’s eyes. Even after I graduated, he would occasionally e-mail or instant message me to see how things were going. It always brought a smile to my face to see his “Out of my office………and my mind” away message.

I thought about Ken a lot this past week. Kids from the orphanage were here again, and as usual, driving the teachers up the walls. The first time we had orphans here, in my exasperated state I put up a nasty away message about them. Ken saw it and e-mailed me a friendly warning that my boss or superiors may see it so I should be careful. He went on to ask how I was enjoying Korea, yada yada yada. I didn’t read the e-mail until several months later; he had sent it to my UMD e-mail address, which I stopped checking once I switched to Gmail. I kept meaning to respond, but never did.

I don’t really know what else to say. When I found out (at 2 a.m. Korea time), I called the Scholars office and talked to some of the people who I had worked with and who also were close with him. I also frantically called Erin’s cell phone until she picked up. After talking to Erin, we both went online and started telling people from our program. It was bittersweet–it was nice to get back in touch with some of them, having not spoken to them in years. I just wish it wasn’t for this reason.

Ken was a wonderful, unique person. He taught me not to take things too seriously (which might account for the Cs I got in some of my classes), and, as we learned in kindergarten, to be nice to everyone. Typing these words, it doesn’t feel real; it’s only when I Skype with someone or hear a voice that I lose it and start crying again.

If Ken could see everything that’s happened in the past day, all the fuss being made, I think he’d hate all of the attention being drawn to him.

And he’d probably send us an e-mail about it.

Possibly the worst photo of either one of us.  I kept stealing his camera when I was volunteering at the 2005 Service Day.  I'm glad he decided not to delete this.

Possibly the worst photo of either one of us. I kept stealing his camera when I was volunteering at the 2005 Service Day. I'm glad he decided not to delete this.

At our Media happy hour a few weeks before graduation.  Ken doesn't drink.  I do.  Obviously.

At our Media happy hour a few weeks before graduation.

*Stolen from Erin*...Ken made an effort to find as many Media scholars before the main commencement ceremony.

Ken made an effort to find as many Media scholars before the main commencement ceremony.

Ken, you were a blessing to those of us who were lucky enough to know you. You had a profound impact on so many of our college experiences, and none of us will be the same without you.

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