For minority students, finding mentors can be a challenge. Here’s how they can overcome barriers.
By Tori DeAngelis
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Jeanett Castellanos, PhD, was just glad she’d made it to college. Neither of her parents—both Cuban refugees—had graduated from high school, and they were exuberant about their daughter’s success. “I thought I would just get a BA. I didn’t think there was anything further,” Castellanos says.
But that changed when a friend sought to introduce her to a professor who, she told Castellanos, “is going to change your life,” Castellanos recalls. He was Joseph L. White, PhD, now professor emeritus at the university and renowned for his life-changing mentoring of many students. As soon as Castellanos walked into his office, she was greeted by “this charismatic, personable man” who helped her sketch out her educational trajectory on his wall-to-wall chalkboard.
Castellanos fulfilled the vision they outlined that day, which included a master’s degree in counseling psychology and a doctorate in higher education. She went on to become director of UCI’s Social Science Academic Resource Center, where she helped numerous undergraduate students secure the tools they needed to be ready for grad school. Today, she’s a tenured faculty member with her own research mentoring program, and she and White are co-authoring a book on mentoring.
Castellanos’s story speaks to the power of this vital academic relationship—how connecting with the right people at the right time can vastly influence a student’s school and career trajectory. Yet for first-generation students and many minority students, finding good mentors and getting the most out of these connections can be daunting. That’s because in many cases they’re not versed in the culture of academe, says White.
“These students are entering a new way of life, and they have to understand that it’s more than just the academic side of college or grad school that’s important,” he says. “They need to get connected to the decision-makers in the field.”
The obstacles to finding mentors and otherwise gaining a strong foothold in academe can be psychological as well, says Kevin Cokley, PhD, professor of counseling psychology and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His research shows that graduate students of color are more likely than white students to experience the “impostor phenomenon”—the belief held by some high-achieving people that they’re frauds and will be seen as such. This phenomenon takes on added significance for students of color because they may internalize stereotypes that they’re in school simply because of affirmative action, says Cokley, whose results are in press at the Journal of Counseling Psychology.
“So when you combine that with what most grad students feel about imposterism,” he says, “it becomes racialized.”
Fortunately, there are ways to overcome such challenges and find great mentors who can help students achieve their highest potential. Here’s advice from students and psychologists versed in this valuable relationship:
Know that you need them. Mentors aren’t a luxury—they’re a necessity, says Andy Choi, a fourth-year student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and member of the APAGS Science Committee. “A lot of the training and socialization that happens in our field is very interpersonal, and those elements aren’t necessarily structured into your coursework,” he says. So students should recognize that they need others who are more advanced in the field to guide them, he says.
Seek many mentors. The complexity of grad school and crafting a career trajectory means that one mentor is not enough. To succeed, students need mentors to help them gain skills in a range of relevant areas, whether it’s in academia, research, networking or other.
University of Missouri psychology professor Lisa Flores, PhD, for instance, recommends that students have one mentor for their research development, one for networking and finding service opportunities, and another for navigating the world of practice. She also encourages students to seek mentors at different career stages—not just full-fledged faculty or professionals, but peer mentors as well. “Each person has something different that they can contribute to your career,” she says. Students should also ask others to recommend people who can guide them, such as advisors, faculty members and fellow students.
Students in research-oriented programs are particularly likely to need more than one mentor—faculty who can address different aspects of the science they are studying, whether in content or methodology, says Choi.
Choose thoughtfully… Students should think about the types of mentors who can best round out their experiences, says Jasmín Llamas, PhD, an assistant professor at Santa Clara University. When she entered grad school, she spent her first year figuring out the kinds of training she was already getting and what she needed to fill in. By her second year, she was prepared to chat with her advisor about her direction and possible mentors who could help get her there. “It’s really smart to get a feeling for what you need before you dive in,” she says.
For many minority students, it can also help to find at least one mentor with whom they have a strong interpersonal connection. Llamas felt fortunate to have had an undergraduate professor who took strong interest in her academic success and helped guide her into the world of research. It was also a plus that she was, like Llamas, Latina. “We are both quite petite, but the way she carried herself really modeled for me that, ‘OK, you can have something to say,'” Llamas says.
…and speak carefully. In a related vein, consider what you want to learn before meeting with your mentor, recommends Joelle Taknint, chair of the APAGS Committee for the Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Diversity, which works to promote a psychology pipeline that represents the nation’s ethnic diversity. “Be clear from the beginning about what you’re hoping to get out of the experience, and find out what they’re willing to give,” she says. When mentoring relationships don’t work, it’s often because there’s a mismatch in expectations concerning the scope of the mentoring relationship, she says. “Clear expectations upfront can help both mentor and mentee figure out what is most important for the mentee to get out of the relationship, whether it’s networking, research mentoring, preparation for clinical work or other,” Taknint says.
Leave your comfort zone. Students shouldn’t limit themselves to mentors within their own departments. Going outside the psychology department can provide a more neutral sounding board for students’ academic concerns, goals and desires. And for students pursuing interdisciplinary research, going outside the department is, for obvious reasons, a necessity.
In Choi’s case, a positive experience with a research mentor from his university’s department of education blossomed into a decision to gain an extra master’s degree in quantitative methods—an expertise he knows will be valuable in his future research and when he’s seeking an academic position. “The takeaway for me is to be open and flexible about finding mentorship outside your immediate field,” he says.
Transcend your own stereotypes. While it might make sense initially for students to seek out mentors who share their ethnic or racial background, doing so isn’t necessary for success, says Flores. In fact, a 2011 study in the Journal of Social Issues by Stacy Blake-Beard, PhD, of Simmons College, and colleagues found that while minority students may prefer mentors with similar backgrounds, students with different-group mentors have the same academic outcomes as peers with same-group mentors. What’s more, it can be hard to find faculty mentors of color because they are few in number and often swamped with mentorship duties.
In Flores’s case, most of her mentors have been white, and all have been essential in guiding her career trajectory, she says. Many have been white women who themselves have experienced discrimination in academe. Some also come from low-income backgrounds, a further impediment to academic success.
“These relationships challenged some of my own stereotypes about mentoring”—including that white faculty tend to come from privileged backgrounds and hence might be difficult to relate to. When that proved untrue, it was a valuable lesson, and it’s a good one for psychology students in general, Flores says.
Get out there. Students can also connect with new mentors by volunteering or applying for teaching or research positions, Taknint suggests. When she was considering graduate school but wasn’t sure whether her application was competitive enough, she took off a year after college and volunteered in the Marquette University lab of Lucas Torres, PhD, who studies Latino health disparities. One day Torres asked her to stick around after a meeting, and he spent the next hour encouraging her to apply to grad school. “He told me he thought I had what it takes, and that he wanted to do whatever he could to help make that happen,” Taknint remembers. “That was huge for me, and it gave me the little kick I needed to give grad school a shot.”
Students should also get involved with APA, APAGS, their state psychological associations and relevant ethnic-minority psychological associations—great places to find professional and other kinds of mentors, Taknint advises. “Any way to get involved in professional communities is a plus,” she says.
Give back. Mentoring is often seen as a one-way relationship, with mentors giving and mentees receiving. Instead, students should think of it as reciprocal, and consider ways of giving back, Flores recommends. A particularly valuable way is simply sharing your achievements, both personal and professional. “Don’t be shy. Mentors have invested in you as a person and a professional, and they want to be able to celebrate your successes,” she says.
Another important way to give back: Become a mentor yourself, including by mentoring peers in earlier stages of graduate study within your program or lab. When Castellanos told White that she wanted to repay him for everything he’d done for her, his answer was always the same: “Pass it on.”