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40% of STEM Deans Don't Have Enough Mentors for Underrepresented Students. Here's How to Change That.

Elise Tjernagel
September 11, 2018 at 4:30 PM
5 minute read

Mentor Collective’s recent webinar on “Closing the Opportunity Gap in STEM Through Mentorship” brought our partners Dr. Maureen Biggers of Indiana University and Dr. Aaron Bobick of Washington University in St. Louis Engineering together, to share insights and advice with other leaders in STEM education exploring mentorship to support their underrepresented students.

One of the webinar polls revealed that that 40% of our attendees (most of whom serve as Deans, Provosts and VPs) identified that their greatest challenge in realizing impactful mentorship programs was finding mentors for their URM students.

These mentors are critical to supporting a student’s acclimation to an institution and to offer advice from someone who’s “been there”. As Dr. Biggers shared, helping students develop a vision for what is possible greatly impacts their sense of belonging in the major/field and being retained.

So how does Mentor Collective and its partners, like Indiana University and WashU Engineering, overcome the challenge of finding enough mentors?

#1 Start With Young Alumni 

It may be tempting to pair students with established mentors, but young alumni (those who have graduated in the last ten years) are typically an even better fit for current students.

Dr. Bobick highlighted the benefit of being mentored by someone who, in their own right, is still “figuring things out”: “We tend to think of mentors as people with the answers, but actually more recently graduated mentors are people who are slightly further along but also still figuring it out. This notion [...] is really powerful in a world where clarity of career is much less than it used to be.”

Here are some insights from alumna mentors in both Dr. Biggers’ and Dr. Bobick’s programs:

 

Indiana University CEWiT

I'm volunteering to help others find their path faster than I did. It took me a while to get into my field of technology sales, and I want to help show others that success is possible when you work like a rockstar! I was not a rockstar student but I am awesome in real life.  I'm learning to code at a later age, I hit my revenue quotas, I'm a leader, and I have a lot of confidence. I only wish this could have been achieved earlier, and I think if I had a mentor, it could have.

– Alumna Mentor, Indiana University, Center of Excellence for Women in Technology (CEWiT)

WashU in St. Louis

 

I would like to be a positive female mentor for other females in the engineering industry. I am also about to complete my masters and it is a positive experience I would like to talk to others about.”

– Alumna Mentor, WashU in St. Louis

 

#2 Look to Near-Peers (Upperclass Students)

Do you know what help or guidance your students want most?

While alumni offer an obvious connection to the field, “near-peer” mentors (those with a small gap in age and experience) have proven highly effective in helping underrepresented STEM students build self-efficacy.

Here are some of the reasons Dr. Bobick’s students expressed a desire for a mentor—all topics a personal, relevant mentor (not necessarily an alumnus) could provide support and guidance on.

WashU in St. Louis

 

“How does one be social and connect with those around them when you are so used to handling things and being by yourself?”
– First Generation Mentee


“How do I balance very different interests while trying to figure out what I want to do for a career?”
– Male URM Mentee


“What piece of advice would you give me that you wish you knew sophomore year of college?”
– Male URM Mentee

#3 Don’t Overlook Allies

Dr. Bobick shared that after launching these mentorship programs, they received a swell of passion and support from male alumni. While you can still honor a female student’s specific request for a female mentor, don’t overlook your community’s allies: majority population students, staff, faculty, or even industry leaders with an affinity for the institution. Many students would gladly connect across difference, and benefit from their mentor’s social capital, experience, and network.

WashU in St. Louis

 

“I have experience in academics, medicine, and engineering. These fields can be extremely rewarding but stressful at the same time, and Iwould love to be able to help students wanting to pursue careers in these or any fields in whatever way I can.”
- Alumnus

Dr. Bobick shared that after launching these mentorship programs, they received a swell of passion and support from male alumni. While you can still honor a female student’s specific request for a female mentor, don’t overlook your community’s allies: majority population students, staff, faculty, or even industry leaders with an affinity for the institution. Many students would gladly connect across difference, and benefit from their mentor’s social capital, experience, and network.

How Can We Move Forward with Transformative Mentorship at Our Institution?

Mentorship is a simple concept, but challenging to administer at scale. Our research has shown that two of the greatest challenges include recruiting a qualified pool of mentors and tracking outcomes to measure its impact.

 

Contact our team to learn more about how we partner with leading STEM programs at institutions like UC Davis, University of Colorado, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Arizona to develop and manage customized, large-scale mentorship programs with measurable impact.

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