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Retaining Minority Students in Science Departments: A Research-Centered Approach

It is crystal clear to all successful scientists that mentoring (formal and informal) is at the heart of retaining students in the sciences, particularly underrepresented minority students. But although some of us are born mentors, others have to learn how to become mentors. The mentoring approach described here is just one among many possible models, but it is one that I believe will not only increase the retention of minority students in your science department, it will also boost morale. This model is most applicable to mentoring minority students at majority institutions.

What Is a Good Mentor?

The essence of good mentoring is mutual trust between the student and mentor. The mentor must believe that the student has the inherent ability and desire not only to accomplish the task but also to excel. Second, and most important, the student must trust that the mentor will fully support them in all aspects of their education.

How can a mentor gain the students' trust? Mentors and students must be comfortable with each other! One way for the mentor to find a comfort zone is through a shared research project. A research-centered model has the built-in ingredients for successful mentoring because it provides a project of mutual interest and a necessary mechanism for conversation.

But what if you don't have a research project that the student is interested in? How can you establish this mentoring relationship? Many of the practices developed during research advising can be brought to bear in the classroom. The most effective teachers are those who know their students' background, who teach in a manner that builds on students' previous knowledge, and who challenge their students to work to their maximum ability. To successfully retain underrepresented minority students, faculty members must have high expectations for all students while also providing the appropriate help tailored to the needs of each student. In fact, it is important that faculty members hold all students to the same standards. Treating minority students differently can undermine their self-confidence and might lead to poor performance.

Establishing the Mentoring Relationship

So what can you do? Set up "getting to know you" office hours. Don't wait for students to come to your office hours, especially minority students. There are several advantages to making appointments with all students in your class--minority or not--before they have a graded assignment. It will allow you to get to know the students before any work is graded. It will make the students more comfortable coming to your office, even if it is to discuss poor work. And it will help students appreciate that using office hours is a normal--indeed, expected--component of the learning process. This is important, because students consider it an imposition to "bother" professors during office hours. Moreover, many first-generation college students believe that seeking help confirms the notion that they are not capable.

Helping Students Achieve Their Full Potential

It is also important to expect excellence from all your students--in fact, to demand it! But how can you help students achieve their full potential? Working effectively in small groups inside and outside the classroom is one demonstrated cornerstone to success in the sciences. But what are the pitfalls for minority students? During office hours, ask minority students about working in small groups. Be direct. Don't pretend race is not a factor--it is. So, ask whether they work with students of the same race and/or ethnic group or whether they know students in the class other than those in their group.

Most faculty members instruct students to work in study groups. Be specific: Tell the class the benefits of group work and how to prepare for study groups. Help students get to know each other during class by assigning group projects. (You would be amazed how many students in a small class end the semester without knowing the names of their classmates.) By having them work together in the classroom, they are more likely to continue this work outside the classroom. Check in with each student from time to time to talk about what is working and what is not. Change group assignments intermittently, because there can be genuine conflict.

These practices, which are valuable teaching methods that can benefit all students, are particularly effective for retaining minority students. Although you might not achieve a critical mass of minority students at your institution, it is essential that the underrepresented students feel part of the student cohort. The above practices will go a long way toward providing a comfortable learning environment in which all students learn by making mistakes.

Jean Fuller-Stanley is an associate professor of chemistry and departmental chair at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. From 1994 to 2000, she directed the Minority Mentoring Science Program. For further information, please send Fuller-Stanley e-mail at