Image: Faeries with magic wands at the May Day drill - Normal and Collegiate Institute, Asheville, N.C., c. 1921
College affordability is one of 2016’s biggest campaign issues. But the United States ranks in the top 10 internationally in college enrollment and in the bottom half in completion of bachelor’s degrees. Clearly, we need to do more to keep students (regardless of their debt) and help them graduate. This war of attrition won’t be won with legislation and court fights; we need boots on the ground in the form of mentors.
Mentoring — the good old-fashioned kind in which a professor gets to know students and then provides guidance and support in helping them achieve their goals— would help. Research shows that mentorship significantly improves student success, with one study reporting an increase in retention of nearly 12 percent. Yet we spend little time in academia developing mentorship skills, and pursue precious little research (less than 1 percent of the nearly 1,500 scholarly articles on mentoring) on what actually works for undergraduates.
Mentoring can make an especially profound difference for first-generation college students. They are four times more likely to leave college after their first year, and five times less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with their more privileged peers. If we consider students whose parents didn’t finish high school, the landscape is even more bleak.
I know these at-risk students well — I was one of them. My father didn’t finish high school, yet I completed my bachelor’s degree in three years, and immediately went on to earn a Ph.D. I now realize that my forward momentum was propelled in large part by the support I received from a series of amazing mentors. I found my way to them through both formal and informal routes, but once our paths crossed, these mentors simply reached out and took me under their wing. Such small moments can have a big impact, which is why more of us in academia should be on the lookout for opportunities to help.
At its core, mentoring should make life easier for a student. But the way in which that happens makes all of the difference. My mentors never once lowered the bar for me; instead, they handed me the tools to climb over it on my own. As a result, my confidence grew. Here’s how they did it.
- They encouraged me to compete only with myself. My first mentor was my Dad, who once gave me a framed quote from Charlotte Whitton that still hangs on my wall: “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult.” That was a big step for my Dad. He believed with every essence of his being in a patriarchal society — I started learning to cook when I was six; by the time I left for college, I had never repaired anything in the house (the closest I came was holding tools for him while he worked). Still, his love for me broke through that barrier when it came to my education. He instilled in me a strong sense of self-reliance by repeating the mantra that “all anyone can ever ask of you is your best.” This internal standard gave me a layer of thick skin as armor to persevere in a world of metrics, where it’s all too easy to compare my success with that of others.
- They gave me some space. When I began college, I wanted to be a dentist, and I wanted to get there by first completing a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology in three years. When I explained my plan to my faculty adviser, Vassie Ware, she looked at me in wide-eyed disbelief, but instead of discouraging me, she took out a piece of paper and began to map out the daunting plan. Toward the end of my undergraduate studies, I completely changed my mind about dental school. When I went to her office to tell her that I had decided to go to graduate school instead, she threw herself backward in her chair and shrieked before bounding around her desk to hug me, saying, “I’ve been waiting for this day!” I had no idea that she had a bias. Unbeknownst to me, she quietly facilitated my evolution by listening to my growing interest in molecular biology and suggesting opportunities to match it — such as an undergraduate research project and a summer internship. Vassie recognized a shift before I saw it in myself, and she positioned me to move onto the next level without knowing that I would ever decide to go there.
- They allowed me to voice my opinions safely. In graduate school, I chose to study Epstein-Barr virus under the direction of George Miller, in the medical school at Yale University. From my first day, this highly accomplished scientist, physician, and professor treated me (with my three years of undergraduate study) as an equal. His humility created a working environment that felt more like a home (my children now call him Grandpa George). Our lab family regularly had lunch and frequently dinner on Friday nights together, where the conversation seamlessly moved from weekend plans to molecular mechanisms of gene regulation. It became natural to think out loud, with George often asking, “Why would the virus do that?” as a way to push us to focus our work on important questions. Every answer that we found was met with his excitement about all of the new questions that it raised. In practicing the philosophy that all questions and ideas were valuable, George taught me how to approach science with confidence.
- They pushed me to do more. When I transitioned to a postdoctoral position, I began studying how proteins can act as infectious agents with Susan Lindquist, one of the most innovative and inspiring scientists that I have ever met. When it came time to publish my work, I expected the customary edits from her, followed by a quick submission of the manuscript. Instead we spent hours sitting next to one another over the course of six months, working through the draft one paragraph at a time. During those sessions, Sue gave me 100 percent of her focus, dismissing all distracting phone calls, persevering through colds, ignoring my protests that it was “good enough.” In between, she would leave me yellow post-it notes that said “see me” on my desk and call me at home to share ideas and connections that she had made. She pushed me to think harder and to look at my own work from a broader perspective. Through her focus, enthusiasm, and brilliance, I learned to not accept the limitations of my current knowledge and to continually strive to expand those boundaries.
- They didn’t just mentor students. When I became a faculty member at Brown University, my office was across the hall from that of Kim Mowry, and I wore a path in the floor to her door over the next few years. Despite her seniority, she always greeted me with a smile when I barged in saying, “Kim, can I ask you a question?” She gave me advice on everything from organizing scientific conferences to work-life balance. She sat in my office and talked to me about my tenure dossier as I nursed my newborn, and she both laughed and cried with me, depending on what the situation warranted. I learned that there’s no shame in admitting that you often don’t know what you’re doing, and, to the contrary, that there’s great benefit in seeking the advice of those who have gone before you.
Now I’m on the other side of the desk, and I strive to pass along this wisdom to my own students, postdocs, and junior colleagues. Emulating my own mentors is no easy task, and I’ve found that time — or more specifically, the lack thereof — is the major barrier.
But perhaps many of us take a too restrictive view of mentoring. As research shows, even one or two interactions outside the classroom can make a difference in student retention. A person’s past doesn’t have to define his or her future. And as my own experiences show, mentoring can provide a bridge over the challenges we face.