The value of finding a mentor and friend with similar interests

Steven and Nils share a love of Civil War history

“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself,” Oprah Winfrey

By Nils Skudra

Over the course of my life, I’ve found having a close mentor is extremely valuable since a mentor is an individual that I can confide in and who offers important lessons. During the two and a half years that I’ve lived in North Carolina, I feel that I’ve cultivated a very close mentor-based relationship with my friend Steven Hancock, who shares my passionate interest in the American Civil War. I actually first connected with Steven through social media nine years ago while I was still living in California. I was browsing through a Facebook page on a Civil War film project that was in development when I found a comment from Steven on one of the featured photos. I struck up a conversation with him about the topic, and we quickly became Facebook friends who would regularly correspond about Civil War history.

Through my online communication with Steven, I learned that he had a host of ancestors who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and that, according to his family, is very distantly related to William Shakespeare. I was very intrigued by this information since I had a fervent interest in meeting people with Civil War family backgrounds. Since California did not really experience any military engagements during the Civil War, I could not expect to have much luck in meeting many Californians with that background. Therefore, in my conversations with Steven, I displayed much enthusiasm for learning about his Confederate ancestors (none of whom owned slaves), his opinions on what they fought for, and his perspectives about various aspects of Civil War history. He pointedly affirmed that he had respect for his Confederate ancestors – while they served a secessionist republic which was committed to the preservation of slavery, the issue itself did not factor into his ancestors’ motivation for fighting since they fought, rather, in defense of their homes and hearths, which Steven felt was true of most Confederate soldiers.

Steven and Nils at Reynoldo House
Steven and Nils at Reynoldo House

While I thoroughly enjoyed communicating with Steven online about Civil War history, it seemed highly unlikely that we would ever meet in person since I lived on the West Coast while he lived on the East Coast. But then, I received word from UNC Greensboro that I had been accepted to their Master of Arts program in History, and Steven happened to live near Greensboro. As he put it in his own words, “I first started conversing with Nils on Facebook, when we were following a Civil War film project that was in development. When he moved to North Carolina from California, it happened to be in my neck of the woods, so we were able to get together, and start talking.”

Since meeting Steven in person, I have had the opportunity to take a number of trips with him to various cities and historic sites in North Carolina and Virginia. Among these locations have been Asheboro, Statesville and Fort Dobbs State Historic Site, NC, and Lynchburg and Appomattox Courthouse National Military Park, VA. Visiting Appomattox was especially astonishing for me since this never would have seemed likely had I stayed in California. In addition, since I have read much about the surrender at Appomattox and seen it portrayed in various films and documentaries, it felt very powerful to actually walk the grounds where the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia laid down its arms and to step inside the reconstruction of the McLean House (which included some of the original foundation) where Lee and Grant held a meeting that would produce the beginning of the end of America’s bloodiest conflict.

While our mutual interest in the Civil War has been a central tenet of our friendship, I also feel that my connection with Steven has furnished me with a very close mentor. He is very knowledgeable about the topic and shares his perspectives openly, not only with respect to the Civil War but also the history of early Christianity, another subject that holds my interest. In addition, Steven is a man of profound faith, and he has offered many glowing insights on the power of forgiveness, following one’s dreams, and treating relationships as sacred. Furthermore, he embodies the religious notion of being of service, and he constantly seems to help people, including myself. For his part, Steven has said of me: “Nils is a very intelligent young man, but what really impresses me is that he is always asking relevant questions about historical topics. He’s always wanting to learn more, and understand our history better. To me, that is one of the true natures of a historian: Always seeking further answers and knowledge, to help us better understand who we are, and where we’ve come from, and how to better our future.”

Knowing Steven as a friend and mentor has been an immensely rewarding experience for me in that we share intellectual interests and camaraderie. He also has a great sense of humor, and as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome – which usually carries with it accompanying anxiety – I find that his easygoing demeanor, in conjunction with being a good and empathetic listener, calms me down. In turn, Steven reflects, “It’s been a real privilege to get to know Nils, and mentor him on his research into history. He is hard-working, intelligent, and always wanting to learn more. Historians could learn a great lesson from his example.” I greatly appreciate Steven’s example, as well, and I feel that his willingness to be a mentor is invaluable and comes from a real unselfishness in the willingness to share information and life lessons. A popular talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, had a saying that I think is quite apposite: “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.”

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Nils Skudra

I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.

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