A Theoretical Aside
I have been thinking about mentoring a lot in my decisions concerning my future as a professor and teacher within science. For one school application they asked that I write a 2 page essay on my multicultural experiences. At first I though this was a silly exercise, but I realized that it was not only something that demanded my attention, but also something I have experience with. I have worked with a lot of students from difficult social and economic situations, so I have a soft spot for those students-and I have learned how to help them reach their potential.
Below is the essay I wrote about my first real experience with a student from what would be called a diverse background.
“It seems like deadlines, big papers and prestige demand time and attention…but in the end, it’s who remembers us, our mentees, that define our legacy.” – Michael Tomasson
Over 14 years of supervising undergraduate and high school student research volunteers, I have had the opportunity to spend extended time mentoring students from a diverse range of ethnic/cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic conditions. To provide a specific example to illustrate my approach to mentoring in these situations I will describe one of my early mentoring experiences.
Relatively early in my research career at the University of Utah, I was given the responsibility to mentor a pair of high school students that were participating in a summer research program. That year there one of them was a high school junior from a very small, rural school approximately 400 miles from the University named Daisha. The first thing that struck me was that Daisha came from quite a long way away, and thus had chosen to do the summer fellowship at a net cost to her since she had to spend the stipend she was going to receive on a room and board in a local apartment. This was not a trivial sacrifice since students received $500 for 8 hours of research daily M-F over 9 weeks. Considering this sacrifice, I figured it was only fair that I spend the time to make sure Daisha got the full benefit of her experience in the research lab.
What I came to realize after meeting Daisha for the first time was that there were more challenges in her life than simply being a long way from home (which was in itself a first for her). Walking into lab one day I overheard a conversation between Daisha and a few of the undergraduates in lab. The undergrads were trying to figure out what ethnic group Daisha belonged to. Throughout this conversation Daisha was claiming Hispanic origin; she saw Hispanic as less derogatory than it being known that she was a full blooded member of the Navajo Nation. Unfortunately for Daisha, her assumption was correct. Being Native American, and particularly Navajo, was not something that she could publicly take any measure of pride in outside of the reservation in Utah.
Needless to say, once Daisha acquitted herself from that conversation (crying), I pulled her into one of the testing rooms and had what would become the first of many rather long conversations about why she was not intrinsically worth less than anyone else because of her background. Now that it was clear I knew she was Navajo, she revealed to me the specific reasons she felt the harshly judging eyes of everyone in lab on her. Her father was a chronic alcoholic and was in prison for aggravated assault, and her family lived well below the poverty line. She had been mortified that anyone would find any of this out, least of all the lab PI and myself-as she assumed we would not give her a fair chance if we knew her background; and thus would treat her as less than everyone else by coddling her.
The next day, while she was handling the rats she was to use for her experiments that summer, I made a deal with Daisha. Because her greatest fear was that she would be coddled and treated like a child if I knew her background, I promised to be extra tough on her. This “tough love” treatment started by me switching her from the guaranteed-success behavioral task I had originally assigned her to making her work directly with me to develop a behavioral task from scratch to answer one of my research questions.
For the next month, Daisha and I met for 1-2 hours a day with her having to read a journal article on what I wanted her to know every evening and talking to me one-on-one about it the next morning and applying what she learned toward experimental design. Through these meetings, Daisha not only designed an experiment to test the rats, but she came to realize that A) I do not care that she is Navajo, so far as I was concerned it had no bearing on her performance so there was no reason to be self conscious, B) she was able to do whatever it was that I required out of her without too much difficulty (and to reiterate, I was not taking it easy on her-I made her do a lot of difficult problem solving), and C) she really began to love science. She confided in me right before she returned home at the end of the summer that she only had applied for the research program so she could visit Salt Lake City and get off the reservation for the first time, and perhaps the last time, in her life. She never thought for a second that it would be in any way a positive experience, less that she would gain any insight into her life from it. In other words, she finally recognized that she had potential.
After the summer program ended, Daisha went back to Montezuma Creek (the Navajo reservation in Southern Utah). A few years later I got a note from her that she had decided she was going to attend the College of Eastern Utah on a hardship scholarship to get a degree as a Certified Nurse’s Assistant. Which she now has.
My experiences with Daisha taught me an invaluable lesson about how to approach and work with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is not about how, why, or what the conditions that put them at a disadvantage may be, it is about what it takes to make the student recognize and subsequently reach their full potential. In the years since that summer working with Daisha I have taken as mentees primarily female, economically disadvantaged, minority students that need guidance to achieve their potential. Taking my early experiences to heart, my approach is to always first engage these students in dialogue to see if they feel they have unmet goals and to determine if they recognize their full potential. We then, together, figure out how the mentor-mentee relationship is going to unfold. For some students, I have to be a rather rough or hard on them to provide a foil against which they can excel. For others, they need a little bit of hand holding, until one day they realize that they no longer need a crutch, at which point they usually have been independent for a number of months without having realized it. I have an additional set of examples I published a month ago on my research blog that elaborates upon my approach. Link
In short, I feel that my job as a mentor, particularly in cases of multicultural or economic disadvantage, is not to use the students to increase diversity. Rather, I see my job as that of identifying the students that most need the mentorship I can provide, and giving it to them.
I am reiterating the take home from an earlier post on mentoring because I feel that strongly about it:
p>TL;DR Mentoring is not just hard, it is very hard. It demands a lot out of the student and a lot out of the mentor. In my way of thinking, if you think of the results of a mentor-mentor relationship in terms of your future is in their hands, you will work a lot harder to make sure you both are on the same page than if you view them as expandable. It is never okay to take advantage of a student in any way. Their time is invaluable, and they deserve your deepest respect. Perhaps as mentors we would be well informed to try to earn theirs.