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Peer Mentoring, Part 1: Why We Must Lift As We Climb

I knew attending graduate school as a black woman in science and engineering (S&E) would be an isolating experience. I just didn't quite understand how far and wide I would have to search to find people who shared my values, experiences, and anxiety.

Growing up as the "smart kid," you learn to deal with moderate amounts of isolation--being the minority in a majority environment--but being able to come home to a place where you can take off the mask and just be is vital. As I've moved onward and upward in my academic life, it's been harder to find places to take off the mask, harder to find like-minded people to do the same. We're all struggling to hold on to our ideals of what graduate school should be while masking our disappointment at the realities that we've faced, all the time wondering why someone hadn't prepared us for reality.

Thinking Aloud

Even though I've tried to limit negative thinking as it relates to my situation and look for the best in all people and situations, nagging thoughts occasionally seep in. I find myself asking, Why don't more faces in graduate programs (students and professors) look like mine? Why do I often feel isolated, left out, and overwhelmed when I think about how to face the days ahead of me in my graduate school career? Why are there so few role models for me? Why should I even continue in science when I could enter medicine, business, or law and find less anemic minority communities? How do I navigate the madness of graduate school? Why does my adviser seem to be so hard on me? Where is the love?

Let's face facts. The percentage of underrepresented minorities (URM) enrolled in science and engineering (S&E) graduate programs is still abysmally low--a whopping 8.8% nationwide.1 Given that the URM population of our nation is at an all-time high of 25.7% and on the rise to near 50% by the year 2050,2 something is terribly amiss. Beyond enrollment, the successful matriculation and retention of these students can vary widely by institution and department. In 1997, a total of 607 African Americans, 645 Hispanics, and 71 Native Americans were awarded Ph.D.s in all S&E fields, a total of 7.3%. That's like the graduating class of a city high school; what's going on?

It's a wonder to me that some folks benefiting from programs and initiatives such as affirmative action or targeted recruitment and mentoring efforts want to dismiss them after only a few decades of progress and moderate achievement. We, as successful minority scientists and engineers, need to improve how we foster and encourage one another's success and growth. To allow a new generation of scientists and engineers to accompany us on our journey, we must lift and strengthen as we climb.

We're in This Together

For those of us in the midst of our graduate school programs, we know that getting through our first year and beyond our qualifiers were some of the most difficult days in our academic lives. Many of us still wake up wondering What on earth am I doing here, and Why am I doing this to myself? The love for research isn't always enough to get you through the rough days. A support network is necessary to lean on, not just to have fun with but to remind you of the following:

a) Getting through graduate school can and will be (at some point, if not always) a political process that requires thoughtful navigation.

b) You are not alone in your frustration.

c) Your intellect and stamina will be challenged, sometimes daily.

d) Everything won't work the first time; that's why it's called research.

As students, we know that the numbers of minority faculty members in any area are wretchedly low. Less than 6% of Ph.D.-holding faculty members in S&E fields at 4-year institutions are URM. Although we often seek their support as mentors, we must understand that most other minority students have sought them out as well. This doesn't mean that faculty members won't help us, but it does mean that they are often stretched to the limit as they are working to sustain their own research programs, satisfy tenure and teaching requirements, and navigate departmental waters. Knowing this, we must be ready and willing to take care of one another as students.

Some of us come from strong mentoring traditions, where graduate students were specifically assigned to undergraduates to assist them through their degrees and get them into graduate school. Others have been assigned graduate mentors when they started graduate school, to give a student perspective on how to navigate the game. Still others, like myself, have gone it alone, mentoring undergraduates into graduate school and taking time out to help fellow graduate students in times of distress. (See Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse, Chapter 22: Micella the Mentor).

We must, with patience, kindness, and an eye toward the future, shoulder the responsibility of assisting one another through the process. Until we reach a time when all students of color have numerous role models whom they can see on a daily basis rather than only at conferences such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, the National Society of Black Engineers, National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers, and American Indian Science and Engineering Society, we must be part of a grassroots effort to lift as we climb. Although it is true that many of the issues we face as students of color are relevant to all graduate students, there is often a bond that allows us to understand these issues as they relate to being a minority in this society. We are striving to be seen as excellent scientists and engineers, not just minority scientists and engineers.

No Excuses!

For those of you who have excuses for why you can't help your fellow students, I have some answers for you.

"I'm busy," you say. So is everyone else. Next!

"No one helped me." Think real hard about that one. Was there really nobody who offered you an encouraging word, lent an ear to listen, provided guidance and support, gave constructive criticism, graciously granted a shoulder to cry on, fed you when you were hungry, supplied wise council when you didn't know which way to go? Nobody? I thought not. Next!

"I don't know how to mentor someone." Don't worry, that's learnable. Next!

"There's no one in my field to help." Welcome to the real world; there are few to none in mine either. And besides, don't you want company? Who said you could only help folks in your field?

In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision on the use of affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan, undergraduate and graduate programs and fellowships have reissued their mission statements and ideals to prevent further litigation. Programs have opened their doors to all people in favor of fostering an ever-elusive "diversity." For this reason, we must continue to be vigilant in caring for one another and fostering our development through graduate school with or without the assistance of sponsored programs. We, as students, must become attuned to the pitfalls and hurdles we all encounter and help one another beyond them. Solitary survival is not the best option. Collective success should be our goal.

In part 2 of this series, I'll talk about concrete methods to begin and sustain peer mentoring efforts. Please e-mail suggestions and comments to Take care of one another; you just might find someone to help take care of you.


1 NSF report, Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2000

2 "Table 1a. Projected Population of the United States, by Race and Hispanic Origin 2000 to 2050."

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a contributing writer for Science's Next Wave and MiSciNet and 4th-year graduate student.

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