Let me begin with a little background. I grew up among the corn and soybean fields of Southern Indiana. Received my undergraduate degree at a small liberal arts college in Kentucky. Obtained a Ph.D. from a large land-grant institution in the Midwest. Did my postdoctoral training in Salt Lake City. Took my first faculty position in the Deep South. And then moved back to the Midwest.
Nothing particularly remarkable about my background, and yet ... three of my five Ph.D. graduates are minorities (two African-Americans, one Hispanic), two of my current Ph.D. students are African-American, and seven minority undergraduate students have performed research in my lab. I say this only to point out that, based upon my experiences, effective mentoring of minorities does not require any unique preparation or background. What is necessary is a commitment: a commitment on the part of the students, faculty member, department, and institution. Because I've been asked to keep this article brief, I will try to distill my thoughts on how a middle-aged white faculty member--or any other faculty member--can be an effective mentor for minority students into a few guidelines that I hope you will find useful.
My definition of an effective mentor is one who mentors successful students. While the definition of success may depend on your perspective, for me, successful students are ones who reach or leave my lab equipped to reach their potentials as scientists. What, then, are the unique considerations I believe one should take into account when mentoring minority science students? In short, to mentor successful minority students a faculty member should: (1) do no harm; (2) demand and reward excellence; and (3) understand, or at least appreciate, a minority student's perspective.
Do No Harm
What is true for the medical profession is certainly true for the academic profession--first, do no harm. While this cliché is applicable to all students, minority or majority, I believe it is vitally important that faculty members examine their actions when it comes to minority students. What often seems to be innocuous to a white male is often perceived quite differently by others (black, Hispanic, and/or female). Unfortunately, minority students often are led to believe that they are not capable of academic excellence. These students often do not respond to verbal intimidation, challenges to their intellectual potential, or comparative comments as might students who have been brought up in an environment where they were always told they were the best or brightest. Think before applying your standard motivational speech. Consider your students before publicly scolding them. Has this student the necessary background and experience to understand that your challenge to their intelligence is not so much personal as it is professional? First, do no harm.
It is important that a faculty member demand excellence from all students--minority students included. Any student who has reached graduate school has accomplished much already. Do not insult the efforts of minority students who are pursuing a master's or Ph.D. degree by expecting less from them than you expect of any other students. At the same time, it is critical that you recognize their efforts and accomplishments. Be quick to praise your students when they have earned it. It is useful to remember that many minority students do not come from environments that reward academic achievement. As a mentor, it is your responsibility to ensure that your students are appreciated for their efforts. As a former student of mine remarked: "If you ask any African-American, they will tell you that they have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to get half of the recognition." Only by demanding excellence can you expect to nurture a successful student. But demanding excellence without recognizing or rewarding the efforts and achievements of these students can lead to disillusionment and despair on their part. Demand and reward excellence.
Appreciate Diverse Perspectives
Finally, take the time to appreciate and understand the background of your minority students. Are they the first in their family to reach graduate school? What does their family expect of them? Who is their support outside the lab? Until I took the time to really communicate with my minority students, I never realized how different the environment was that I grew up in compared with the environment most of them grew up in. Many minorities come from communities that are not financially successful--thus significant pressure is exerted on these students to pursue medical school or, for those who enter graduate school, a high-paying job in industry. Family expectations can also be different. As another former student of mine commented: "[what some consider] abnormal behavior in academia (e.g., maternity leave or leaving at 6 p.m. to spend time with your family) is 'normal' behavior in many minority communities." Is it reasonable to expect your minority students to be your clones? Have you talked with them to determine their postgraduation plans and goals? If their long-term goals stand in opposition to your long-term goals for them, can you realistically expect to help your students?
Almost all of my minority students (undergraduate and graduate) have had a strong social and/or religious commitment to their communities. Allow these students to spend time giving back to their communities: Some might wish to tutor K-12 students; others might want to spend a week during the summer on a mission trip; still others might be asked to participate in local, state, or national organizations. Understand why your students feel motivated to serve others in this capacity. Do not treat these requests dismissively, with contempt, or with the attitude that these students are not committed to their graduate work. Without exception, my students are more effective researchers when they realize that I support their extracurricular efforts. For minority students who have grown up with few if any intellectual mentors, their ability to mentor others in their community should be nurtured by those of us in academia. How can you really expect to be an effective mentor if you do not know your students or understand their motivations and desires?
Let me conclude with a quote from another one of my students: "Mentors are important early on in life. Most African-Americans don't get any really good mentors ever." My experiences suggest that it is not too hard to be an effective mentor for a minority student--no special background or training is necessary, just a commitment to the success of each and every student that you come into contact with. Those of us who have been in academia understand that one of the greatest benefits of our position is the ability to interact with and effect beneficial change in our students. Minority students are no different from majority students in this aspect. As long as you take the time to understand what is unique about each student, you too can mentor successful minority students.
I wouldn't be in the position to write this article without the help of many. While my acknowledgments are woefully inadequate, I would like to mention those who have helped me formulate the ideas and provide some of the quotes that are included in this article: my former students, Lenore Polo Rodicio, Ph.D., Victor Vandell, Ph.D., and. Tracey Simmons Willis, Ph.D. and the gentleman who served as my mentor during my time at Louisiana State University, Professor Isiah M. Warner. My sincere thanks to ya'll!
BiographyPat Limbach is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Cincinnati. He received his B.S. from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and his Ph.D. from the Ohio State University. His research interests include the use of mass spectrometry for the structural characterization of the ribosome, developing microfabricated devices as sample preparation platforms for biological mass spectrometry, and fundamental studies of matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) mass spectrometry. For further information, you can reach Professor Limbach at Pat.Limbach@uc.edu.