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Robert Neubecker

What I learned by branching out as a mentor

Two years ago, the vice president for student life at my university asked me to serve as a faculty adviser of a student group. I enjoy mentoring and have worked with a number of student groups over the years, but this offer was different. The group—called Brother 2 Brother (B2B)—is largely composed of African American and Latino students. It has a good reputation for fostering a supportive environment for male students who find themselves in the minority in virtually every other situation they encounter across campus. But I was reluctant to get involved because I didn’t see myself as the right person for the job. What would a 52-year-old white male professor raised in largely white northern Appalachia have to offer?

It wasn’t the first time the administrator, who founded B2B, asked me to get involved. Previously, I had always declined, thinking that the job would be better left to someone whose background was more similar to that of the group members. Plus, I wasn’t sure I could fit it in my schedule. This time, though, with the administrator heading off to a different university and the current faculty adviser in poor health, I felt I couldn’t say no.

I knew from the beginning that I needed to earn the right to be listened to—that my age, rank, and background would discourage openness. I spent roughly 1 year paying dues—simply being present, listening, and trying to be helpful— before the students began to see me as worthy of trust.

The first few meetings were especially awkward. I was clearly the outsider—that out-of-place white dude sitting in the corner. The students shot me looks indicating they were wondering why I was there. During the first year, I only managed to develop a few connections. It was a little disheartening, but I stuck with it because I had made a commitment and no one stepped up to take my place.

I’m glad I continued to work with the group, because in year two the students started to open up to me with questions and problems. There was little overlap between my rural upbringing and my students’ largely urban backgrounds, but we bonded by discussing shared elements of our college experience: crummy jobs, financial aid issues, classroom experiences, music, sports, and the horrors of cafeteria food.

I did my best to help when they came to me with problems, even when I couldn’t solve them myself. For example, one undergraduate student explained that he was having difficulty getting assistance from his academic adviser. I knew the faculty member, and I also knew he wasn’t considered to be the best mentor. So I connected the student with another adviser, someone who always has time for students and is willing to problem-solve. I’ve also given group members tips about how to study and where to go on campus to troubleshoot administrative and academic issues. I didn’t do anything most faculty couldn’t do; the difference was that I was in the room to listen and provide advice.

The students have taught me to see the world through a different lens.

My interactions with the B2B students have, honestly, been a highlight of my career—not only because I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, but also because of what I’ve learned. The students have taught me to see the world through a different lens. They have given me a better understanding of the experiences of people of color—which, I believe, has strengthened my cultural competence and my ability to interact with others on a more meaningful level. And in the process, I’ve made new friends.

I encourage my fellow faculty members to get involved in programs such as B2B, even if you’re not a member of an underrepresented group. It requires patience and time; it can be challenging, but it’s also rewarding and fun. What’s more, you’ll help ease the service burden carried by our minority colleagues, work that is often invisible to white faculty and staff.

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