Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Perspective on Picking a Mentor When you Belong to a Historically Marginalized Group

by Melanie Domenech-Rodriguez, PhD; Associate Professor, Utah State University.

As a Latina mentor, I really appreciate the idea of matching with Latino/a students, and I agree with everyone who argues we need more mentors who belong to historically marginalized groups. Mentoring Latino/a students is probably the thing I am most passionate about as an academic. However, there are not enough mentors from historically marginalized groups out there to mentor all students who share their background in the pipeline and –let’s be real- not all Latino/a academics know how to do it well or are interested in it (pigeonholing academics who come from a certain background as working on issues only relevant to that background and only with students of that background is unfair to all of us). Additionally, many of us are junior-level and may really want to do a great job but still not have the experience and savvy to pull it off immediately.

I had an outstanding scholar as a mentor during my Master’s degree. He was White and male, and very committed to seeing me succeed. When I first arrived on campus he asked me about my research interests. I told him I was interested in working with Latinos/as and he saw to it that we sampled Latinos/as in his grant-funded research study. He sought grant support for me (my own grant), mentored me through my thesis, encouraged me to present the work at a national conference, and ultimately get it
published. He also gave me ample other opportunities to publish with him. I would not be where I am today without his mentorship and support. It seems that another approach to our sticky situation is to help students identify mentors, of whatever color, that are committed to developing the careers of their mentees.

Remember that we don’t have a one and only mentor in life or school ... when getting into graduate school the most important thing, in my estimation, is getting *out* so we can do the work we want to do, so finding a rock-solid academic mentor is essential. That may or may not be the faculty member on campus who shares your background. Here are some things I think are important:

(a) When applying to grad school, make sure there is a good match between you and at least one but preferably two or three faculty members

(b) Get info on those faculty from current (and if possible past) students about mentorship style, availability, approachability, etc.

(c) Check out their CVs to see if they’re publishing with students; if not, that could be a warning sign.

d) If possible, go meet the faculty member to see how the two of you click. If not possible, try to do this over the phone or e-mail, you can still get a vibe.

For those of you that feel stuck and unsupported in your programs, you might consider changing programs. It could set you back a year of two but it could put you ahead in the long run if you’ve used your time well.

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