Mentoring Underrepresented Minority Students

So … I’m white, writes Amanda Cornwall. Can I be effective as a mentor to students from underrepresented groups?

January 13, 2020
 
 
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Very shortly after beginning a new administrative role in which my main job is to create programming to support Ph.D. students, I was given an exciting new task. The university had received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to support 12 new underrepresented minority STEM Ph.D. students, and it would be my job to create programming to support those students in their academics, career development and well-being.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to engage in this work. I was keenly aware of the lack of diversity in STEM doctoral education and the professoriate, and I was eager to contribute to efforts to right those inequities. However, I was also aware that most of what I knew on the subject was anecdotal or came from studies, articles and reports I had read, like the American Council on Education’s status report "Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education."

I was eager to begin but also more than a little intimidated. The fact is, I am not from an underrepresented minority group. I’m a middle-aged, middle-class white woman who grew up in a markedly nondiverse suburb of Portland, Ore. I immediately found myself grappling with my own identity and positionality. I felt a humble uncertainty that, unlike impostor syndrome, stemmed from real and not imagined deficiencies in my preparation. Who was I to assume such a mentorship role?

I knew from research I’d read and from my own observations that underrepresented minority students benefit from having mentors and role models who are also from such groups. Further, studies have explored the ways in which mentors who don’t share the same race as their underrepresented students fall short, often failing to recognize the competence or achievements of those students and causing more harm than good through their tendencies to minimize or ignore social identities. When a mentor isn’t of the same race as the mentee, cultural mistrust can interfere with the effectiveness of the mentoring relationship.

I read Robin DiAngelo’s book What Does It Mean to Be White? and worried that I would fall into what DiAngelo names as “common patterns of well-meaning white people,” such as rushing to prove myself as “definitely not racist,” minimizing or even just being overly careful. I came to realize that I was almost certainly not going to be able to avoid making mistakes, but I might still be able to positively contribute to these students’ experience at my university and provide real support for their careers and their development.

While negotiating my own identity and trying to unpack and understand the privilege I carry, I sought to learn more about best practices for mentoring entering researchers and how to be an advocate. While organizing a slate of workshops and activities for the students, I challenged my own frames of reference and probed at the implicit bias in my thinking, aiming to add experiential knowledge to the books on my shelf.

I know that when it comes to learning how to best support students and advocate for social justice in higher education, I’m engaging in a personal and professional process that won’t and shouldn’t end. As Özlem Sensoy and DiAngelo note in the beautifully crafted introduction to their book, Is Everyone Really Equal?, being part of university life “provides opportunities that are rare in any other dimension of life: critical engagement with new ideas; opportunity to hear and consider multiple perspectives; expansion of our capacity to understand and talk about complex social issues; guidance in the examination of our identities, socialization, and meaning-making frameworks; and tools to work towards a more just society.” I couldn’t come up with a better way to express why I feel called to be an educator and why I love working in higher education.

As I reflect upon the work that my students and I have done together, the mistakes and progress alike, I recognize that certain choices and strategies have been helpful and positive moves, and I present them here as suggestions.

Don’t try to provide all needed mentoring support by yourself. Build a network of mentors and facilitate the students’ connections to them. Call upon this network when others can provide certain expertise that you can’t. For example, I seek guest speakers for all of our topical workshops and invite role models who can share their experiences in areas where I have no authority. One of our best sessions featured a senior faculty member, a black woman who has built an extraordinary career. She talked with my students about her journey and how she built productive relationships with her principal investigators and mentors.

Seek to learn more about best practices in mentoring. I attended the Mentoring Entering Researchers training at the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research. Their excellent training includes a vast library of exercises and activities, each of which contains thoughtful diversity and inclusion considerations.

Ask for feedback, candidly. I met with each of my students individually to talk about their experiences and the support they would like to have. I listened and incorporated as many of their ideas as possible into my plans for the following semester. I also provided a confidential survey so that they could provide anonymous feedback.

Don’t avoid difficult topics, and create opportunities for open conversation. As a group, after setting community agreements, my students have discussed microaggressions, stereotype threat, impostor syndrome and many more difficult subjects. When a discussion like this gets going, I try to stay out of the way as much as I can, step back and let them share their own take on these issues and experiences. My role is to create and maintain a safe and respectful space, model active listening and learn -- both in one-on-one interactions and within groups.

Strike a balance between providing practical “nuts and bolts” help as well as emotional support and encouragement. By assisting in the areas where I do have expertise, I can demonstrate my commitment to my mentees and show them that I’ll be there to provide whatever help I can with whatever may come up.

Mindfully call out the elephant in the room. If you are serving as a mentor to an underrepresented minority student and are not a minority, be open about your own positionality and identity, your awareness of your privilege and how you navigate it. Be vulnerable. I don’t pretend my struggles are the same as those of my students or that I know what it is like to grow up as a minority in a society of structural inequality and institutionalized racism. But I do hope that being open about my own failings and difficulties helps to open a space for empathy and connection.

Mentoring underrepresented minority students and working toward social justice in higher education needs to be a shared project, approached individually, holistically and systemically. In offering these suggestions, I recognize that there can be no set formula for this work. But these strategies have aided me in building authentic connections with the students I am committed to supporting.

Bio

Amanda Cornwall is assistant director for graduate education operations and the PhD Network at Northeastern University. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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