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Peer Mentoring, Part 2: Practical Methods to Lift As We Climb

Here's Micella moonlighting on MiSciNet again with a few methods for lifting as we climb.

Solitary successes have not led to parity as it relates to representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Collective success is necessary to remove the fog from the road through upper level academics. As I said in Part 1 (see " Peer Mentoring, Part 1: Why We Must Lift As We Climb"), I knew attending graduate school as a black woman in science and engineering would be an isolating experience; I just didn't know how much personal growth I was in for. The academic and intellectual growth was expected; the insanity was not. Oh, the things we wish we knew before the madness began ...

In the beginning I was a little angry that someone hadn't even tried to tell me the truth about the graduate school process, but then, would I have listened? If not, I would have at least looked at the life I'd lived and been comforted that my experience hadn't been too far out of character. Now, I'm just trying to help others by telling them what I know. What they do with it is their business. It's like the truth commercials; we all know tobacco smoke is toxic, but some of us choose to partake anyway. At least we've been informed.

Last time I left you with the lame excuses that we often use for not helping one another out as students or people of color in general. Let's review.

You're Either Part of the Problem ?

"I don't have time for peer mentoring; I have to finish my degree." "No one helped me, so why should I help anyone else?" "I don't know how to mentor someone." "There's no one in my field that looks like me to help."

Or Part of the Solution

How will we ever make any progress with attitudes like these? Although we all could use these excuses to keep us from mentoring and assisting one another through the graduate school process, collective success is just barely within reach. We will continue to lag behind--swamped in more frustration and bitterness than necessary than if we had offered a hand to help.

We all know that in the real world, there are so few of us in each field that we may not be mentoring anyone in our own field, but it is still a worthwhile endeavor. No one said we had to clone ourselves and ignore the rest of the world. Who said you could only help those in your field? Or in your school or racial group, for that matter? Gifts of help can come from all sides when you least expect it. Have you been a gift to someone else lately?

Getting Involved in What Already Exists

Structured mentoring programs already exist at some of our institutions and within our departments or colleges of science and engineering; do you know what you have at yours? Many universities have been awarded National Science Foundation Sponsored Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate grants to help us move forward through our academic and postgraduate careers. Some of these programs have begun instituting peer-mentoring efforts to partner first- and second- year students with older students so that they have someone they ask the questions that may not be easily asked of other peers or advisers, everything from where to live, our personal horror stories and triumphs, to what not to take personally (see Chapter 28: Practical Approaches to Interpersonal Communication). We are all vast sources of information and are living testimonies to having made it through at least some of the process.

Fellowship programs and smaller institutional programs have also created forums through which students can connect with one another for support. If you have received an outside fellowship, are you using all of the benefits it affords? If there are no listservs associated with your program, would you be willing to create one?

Organizational networks must also be used to help keep contact across fields and schools. Have you been to a societal conference? Were there opportunities offered for you to connect with other students? Have you remained in contact with them? If there were no opportunities, is there someone you can get in touch with about planning the next event to help facilitate such a gathering?

I believe we as students often fail to take advantage of some opportunities presented to us because we're just tired. Making peer-to-peer contacts at societal meetings is essential. These are individuals who are going through your process and will be sources of information when you start your job search. They can tell you who they've had success with and who to stay away from. You can discuss your work with them and help hone one another's skills. Horizontal networking with peers, even at this student stage of our lives, is just as important as vertical networking to find our next station in life.

If none of these initiatives exist at your university, there are some informal ways to develop mentoring relationships.

Keep It Simple: Creating an Informal Community Isn't That Hard

When is the last time you invited your colleagues out for dinner? A movie? Coffee? Brunch? We all have to eat at some point during the day. Creating a lunch bunch of like-minded individuals provides the opportunity to take a little break from the madness and gather together to let off steam. Even if it's only once a month, it's amazing how much stress can be released and discussed so that we don't feel the need to strangle our co-workers.

How well do you keep up with your contacts? Even if it's only a brief e-mail or short call every now and then, keeping lines of communication open provides the opportunity to share insight and struggles, and again, lets us have the opportunity to plan small events.

In that same vein, if someone invites you out, do you respond immediately or do you let it fall by the wayside? Reaching out is a two-way street. If I reach out to you and you ignore me, it's difficult to create and sustain community. We are all guilty of e-mail and phone delinquency and the like; we can all do better. If you can't stand one another, that's one thing, but no one said we had to be up under each other all the time!

Are there any undergraduates in your field who might be interested in pursuing an advanced degree? Do you know them? Do they know you? Are you willing to answer their questions about graduate school--not just applying but picking a program, picking an adviser, getting through the process? Just think if someone had (or had not) done it for you how much different life would be. If there's some kid wandering around your department, find out who they are. Don't just stare at them on the elevator!

Celebrate your successes! We all know there are milestones on the path to the Ph.D. and as such; celebrating passing a qualifying exam, or having successfully obtained candidacy, with other students is a way to show one another that yes, we can do it. Having that extra visual can increase our motivation to want to reach our set milestones. Barbecues and parties are not reserved for birthdays or holidays only!

Sometimes mentoring involves telling the story of what not to do (based on your experience). Mentoring is most often about encouragement, support, and sharing resources and information, but it can also be a reminder to proceed with caution. It will allow you to move forward with both eyes open and be aware of possible pitfalls.

For those of us who simply show up and then complain that we don't have anything to do (you know who you are), why haven't you stepped up to the plate to plan anything? If you don't see the activities you want to see, why not plan your own small event or lunch? Get the word out on the listserv, and be happy with whoever shows up, be it two people or 20. Why are we always waiting on someone else to do things for us? It hasn't happened thus far, so what makes us think it will happen in the future?

Time to Come Out of the Hole

Sometimes it's about value. People don't participate in things that they see no use in--things they believe they will gain no benefit from. But if this is your perspective and you don't bring value to a situation, how will you ever find out how worthwhile an endeavor is? We need to practice bringing value to all situations that we walk into. All sides will benefit if we bring our knowledge and collective experience together to propel us forward. Although getting the degree is a solitary experience, we don't have to further isolate ourselves by feeling that we must do everything on our own. Even if we're groping blindly in the dark until someone finds the flashlight, it's always better to do so in the company of someone who knows what you're going through and will support you as you support them.

Yes, we all have work, family, personal relationships, and work/school looming largest in the picture, but building a network of peers who you will continue to know professionally and personally is essential for our survival as we move into academia, industry, and alternative careers.

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