Mentoring as Self-Care – WOC Guest Post

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color.

If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at gettenure@gmail.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, makeup and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here.

Today’s post is by Guadalupe (Lupita) S. Gonzalez. Lupita writes: “I am a doctoral candidate in cognitive neuroscience in the psychology department at UT Austin. My research interests include the use of neuroimaging methods to examine racial biases in socio-cognitive processes. My current research uses eye tracking to examine how social contexts influence perceptions of racial ingroup and outgroup members. When I’m not conducting research, I advocate for social justice and increasing diversity in academia. To this end, I serve as a mentor for undergraduates from underrepresented groups and am a member of our department’s diversity committee.”

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When I attended my first lab meeting as a graduate student the first thing I noticed was that I was the only POC in the room. The lack of diversity in my program became even more apparent after attending my first Ford Fellows Conference. During the conference, a fellow Fordie and WOC asked me, “so how do you handle being a WOC in cognitive neuroscience, a field that is primarily White male-dominated?” I couldn’t answer her because I had no idea how I was going to handle being one of very few WOC in my department and in my field as a whole. I continued to think about this issue and realized I could help increase diversity in academia by mentoring underrepresented students. In fact, I knew first-hand the positive impact a great mentor can have on students of color. As an undergraduate, I experienced imposter syndrome while attending a private Christian college. I probably would have quit after my first year had it not been for a professor who introduced me to research, taught me how to navigate academia, and nurtured my passion for learning. I could tell he genuinely cared about my success because he often advocated for policies that would make campus more inclusive for students of color. After four years, his incredible mentoring helped me graduate at the top of my class.

My first mentoring experiences came unexpectedly after I hired my first group of research assistants (RAs). All three of them had two things in common: they were seeking research experience and they were WOC. Shortly after they started working with me, they expressed interest not only in my research but also in my experiences as a WOC and first-generation college student. Through our conversations I realized that I was becoming a mentor and role model for them. Although I didn’t have much experience as a mentor, I knew I wanted to be compassionate and honest with my mentees. I was particularly concerned about being compassionate because although I wanted to prepare my mentees for the negative aspects of graduate school, I didn’t want to crush their dreams in the process. To this end, during my first meeting with a mentee I always mention that I’m a Latina, low-income, and first-generation college student. I tell them that I’m the daughter of immigrants and that Spanish was my first language. I also tell them that although I’m grateful to have a career that I love, my experiences have taught me how difficult and unwelcoming academia can be for POC. By talking about my background, my goal is to show my mentees that I’m human just like them and that I also struggle in this field. More importantly, I hope that my mentees can see that WOC do belong in academic spaces.

I quickly realized that mentoring would be a learning experience not only for my mentees but also for me. In one instance, one of my mentees told me she was no longer applying to graduate school. Although I was taken aback by her decision, I tried to be as supportive as possible. Later she mentioned that during a meeting with one of her professors a few months back, the professor told her that he only recommended graduate school to his “best students.” She mentioned that her self-doubt increased because he seemed to imply that she would not be accepted into graduate school so she decided not to apply. After expressing my outrage at her professor’s ignorant comments, I tried my best to offer encouragement and support. I first tried to validate her feelings by explaining that she had experienced a microaggression and that it often happens to students of color. I shared that I had a similar experience when one of my undergraduate professors advised me not to double major because it would be “too difficult.” However, my mentor/professor helped me see that I was more than capable of double majoring. I told her that as first-generation college students we often place a high value on our professors’ opinions and reminded her that, although we see professors as experts, they can also be wrong so we should take their advice with a grain of salt. We had a long conversation about how microaggressions can exacerbate imposter syndrome and by the end of our conversation she seemed relieved and thanked me for the advice. Looking back, this has been one of many instances in which I have grown not only as a mentor but as a person.

When we talk about mentoring in academia, we often focus on the benefits for the mentees but we seldom focus on the benefits for the mentor. In fact, many people view mentoring as a one-way relationship. I’ve heard academics (usually non-POC) argue that academics of color should stop mentoring and practice “self-care.” While I agree that burdening POC with a majority of the mentoring work is a problem that needs to be addressed, I disagree with the idea that mentoring and self-care are mutually exclusive. For some of us, mentoring can be a form of self-care. For example, mentoring allows me to give back to my community. On a more personal level, mentoring helped me develop a sense of purpose and belonging in academia and knowing that many of my mentees relate to my experiences helped reduce my imposter syndrome. In addition, mentoring has kept me motivated by reminding me that my experiences as a WOC in academia provide me with valuable knowledge that can help others navigate the academy. While I realize that mentoring alone will not solve the lack of diversity in academia, I believe that mentoring is a powerful tool. In fact, during one of our recent lab meetings I looked around the room and noticed that the majority of our RAs were women and POC. Today, as I remember my first lab meeting, I can’t help but think that my mentoring efforts over the past few years might finally be making a difference.

About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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