Mentoring Matters: How to support students of color in academia

 Investing in quality mentoring relationships can contribute to success in graduate programs, especially for students of color.

The graduate student experience can be a time of great stress and uncertainty for many. One of the most important aspects of graduate school, that can help alleviate that stress, is securing a mentor. It can determine success in program of study and your readiness to access postgraduate or postdoctoral opportunities. This is especially true for students of color because they have additional stressors due to navigating white-dominated institutions. This experience can oftentimes be alienating. Mentors of color are crucial to students success because they provide cultural and social capital in fields where women and minorities are underrepresented. In addition to focusing on the individual development and growth of your student, graduate mentors of color also have an important role of focusing on institutional change.

At its core, a mentor is a trusted advisor. The quality of the mentoring relationships you develop in graduate school can sometimes make or break you. Why am I placing so much emphasis on a topic that many of us have probably read about quite a bit? Glad you asked. It’s because after completing the first year of my PhD program, I realized that my relationship with my mentor has been crucial to the current success I have already had and hope to continue to have. I believe it is important to share what works in a graduate student mentoring relationship so that mentors of color in academia can understand how crucial the role is that they play for us and what they should strive for as they develop relationships with students. Affirming experiences, like quality mentoring lets them know that they are part of an inclusive community in ways that contribute to their achievement.       

I would like to share five traits of a good mentor:

  • Authenticity. Taking a genuine interest in your mentee as a person outside of their academics will help with development of trust. Some students of color may feel the pressure to be perfect or not make a mistake. By showing them who you truly are, including your own struggles and mistakes, humanizes you as their mentor and makes your student see that it is okay to face some difficulties along their journey.
  • Advocacy and Consistency. A mentor who advocates for their mentees’ best interests is crucial since the mentor most likely has a more established role in the department as well as in academia. A student will want to know that they have some form of support during their program. Checking-in every once in awhile to see how your mentee is doing can really make a difference. This shows a commitment from the mentor.     
  • Encouragement. Offering encouragement is especially important for graduate students of color, as it is likely that there will not be many others that look like them in their programs. It will also be likely that they will or have experience racially stigmatizing experiences during their academic tenure including discrimination, stereotype-based treatment or negative racial climates. These experiences may affect their academic identity. It will be important to develop and maintain a strong, positive academic identity so that your student will stay engaged and persist through their program.   
  • Exposure. Socialize your mentee into the world of academia. One way to ensure that a student of color can be successful in their future careers is if they are introduced to a variety of opportunities throughout their graduate school experience. The mentor should be able to expose the mentee to a variety of different experiences and opportunities, so the student will have a clearer idea where they would like to focus. The exposure should also offer the student the opportunity to connect with other scholars of color from other institutions so that they can begin to build their network.
  • Role modeling. The mentee will be looking towards the mentor for advice on career aspirations which is modeled through the mentor’s career trajectory and day to day interactions. For many students of color, you as their mentor need to be able to relate to them on some level. Your student will be relieved to be able to share their journey with someone who can identify with their background and culture in a positive way. It will be up to you to set the tone for that shared experience.  

In this next section I offer five suggestions for mentors in navigating their relationships with grad students of color:

  • Beware of comparisons. Sometimes graduate school can create a competitive environment, and it will benefit the mentee more to focus on their individual efforts and experience. You should avoid a comparison to other students experience unless you think it will benefit your mentee. Many students of color have been in environments or read papers that discuss the deficits of their racial groups in terms of academics, so it will be important to adopt a strengths-based philosophy when discussing progress or areas of growth. Also remember to celebrate the achievements and milestones of your mentee whether they are big or small.    
  • Create intentional, high quality interactions. The more intentional that the relationship is, the more the student will get out of it. A mentor should always come prepared to meetings and any other interactions that the pair have. There should be an effort to meet in person because you can learn a lot from an in person meeting by reading body language and non-verbal gestures. You can also use what you already know by supporting a student in that way that you were supported. This will be beneficial as the mentor most likely achieved success due to their mentoring relationships.    
  • Be aware of the institutional culture around mentoring. Different institutions have different expectations around mentoring and it will be important to understand those expectations before agreeing to enter into the relationship. Give and take is key in relationships with graduate students of color. In a world where the student may be looked down upon, it is will be crucial to not only expect things from your mentee, but also provide things and opportunities for your mentee. This can help boost self-esteem.  
  • Set expectations together. This will make for a smoother progression in the relationship if both parties know what is expected from the beginning. With this in mind, you should also practice flexibility. Many students of color may self-doubt pretty frequently, and it will be important to reassure them that they are on the right path but that it is also fine to change paths.  
  • Don’t assume anything about your mentee. It is easy to fall into stereotypes and not see a situation from another person’s point of view. Don’t be afraid to ask. Seek out opportunities related to the skills your mentee wants to develop. It will be most productive to provide experiences that allow a student to explore potential interests.  

The key is to never doubt your abilities as a role model and mentor for your student. Having the right mentor can bring out the best of not only the student, but you as well.
image by  duncanandison/AdobeStock

Kendall Johnson is currently studying to obtain her PhD in Social Work at Boston University under the mentorship of Judith Scott(MSW,MPP,PhD). Her research seeks to understand the effects of trauma and community violence, especially homicide, on the Black families’ and communities’ mental health, as well as the supports they utilize in response to traumatic loss and violent events.