Mentoring Matters- Supporting Students of Color in Academia


Investing in quality mentoring relationships can contribute to success in graduate programs, especially for students of color. 

 The graduate student experience for many can be a time of great stress and uncertainty. One of the most important aspects of graduate school, that can help alleviate that stress, is securing a mentor. It can determine success in program of study and your readiness to access postgraduate or postdoctoral opportunities. This is especially true for students of color because they have additional stressors due to navigating white-dominated institutions. Mentors of color are crucial to students success because they provide cultural and social capital in fields where women and minorities are underrepresented (DeAngelo, 2016). At its core, a mentor is a trusted advisor. The quality of the mentoring relationships you develop in graduate school can sometimes make or break you. Why am I placing so much emphasis on a topic that many of us have probably read about quite a bit? Glad you asked. It’s because after completing the first year of my PhD program, I realized that my relationship with my mentor has been crucial to the current success I have already had and hope to continue to have. I believe it is important to share what works in a graduate student mentoring relationship so that other students who may be wondering can know what to expect and what to look for to ensure quality mentoring relationships.    

Here are some traits of a good mentor:

  1. Authenticity. Taking a genuine interest in your mentee as a person outside of their academics will help with development of trust. 
  2. Advocacy. A mentor who advocates for their mentees best interests is crucial since the mentor most likely has a more established role in the department as well as in academia. A student will want to know that they have some form of support during their program.     
  3. Ability to encourage mentee. Encouragement is especially important for graduate students of color, as it is likely that there will not be many others that look like them in their programs.  
  4. Role modeling. The mentee will be looking towards the mentor for advice on career aspirations which is modeled through the mentor’s career trajectory and day to day interactions. 


Now that you know what a good mentor looks like, I offer nine suggestions for mentors in navigating their relationships with grad students of color:

  1. Avoid comparisons. Sometimes graduate school can create a competitive environment, and it will benefit the mentee more to focus on their individual efforts and experience. There should never be a comparison to another students experience. 
  2. Socialize your mentee into the academic world. Some graduate students will not have much exposure to the academic world prior to entering the program and will rely on their mentor to inform them of the ins and outs of academia.
  3. Create quality interactions that are intentional. The more intentional that the relationship is, the more the student will get out of it. The mentor should always come prepared to meetings and any other interactions that the pair have.  
  4. Support a student in that way that you were supported. This will be beneficial as the mentor most likely achieved success due to their mentoring relationships.    
  5. Be aware of the institutional culture around mentoring. Different institutions have different expectations around mentoring and it will be important to understand those expectations before agreeing to enter into the relationship.   
  6. Set expectations together in the beginning. This will make for a smoother progression in the relationship if both parties know what is expected from the beginning.  
  7. Don’t assume anything about your mentee. It is easy to fall into stereotypes and not see a situation from another person’s point of view. Don’t be afraid to ask. 
  8. Celebrate achievements. Try to celebrate the achievements and milestones of your mentee whether they are big or small. 
  9. Seek out opportunities related to the skills your mentee wants to develop. It will be most productive to provide experiences that allow a student to explore potential interests.  


Finally, here are some things that mentees should encourage from their mentor while developing relationships:

  1. In-person meetings. You can learn a lot from an in person meeting due to being able to read body language and non-verbal gestures. Sometimes things come up and a virtual meeting may be more convenient, but this should not be the case all of the time.  
  2. Consistent communication. Checking-in every once in awhile to see how your mentee is doing can really make a difference. This shows a commitment from the mentor.  
  3. Reciprocity. The nature of the mentoring relationship should be reciprocal in that both parties should walk away with something. 
  4. Flexibility. This is key for any successful mentoring relationship. Both parties must be able to exercise flexibility since both mentor and mentee have a boatload of responsibilities outside of this relationship. 
  5. Exposure. The mentor should be able to expose the mentee to a variety of different experiences and opportunities, so that the student will have a clearer idea where they would like to focus. 


The key is to never doubt your abilities as a graduate student, and having the right mentor can bring out the best of you.  

Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

Works Cited

DeAngelo, Linda (2016). Supporting Students of Color on the Pathway to Graduate Education: Barriers and Supports for Mentoring, Council of Graduate Schools Spring Research and Policy Forum

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