Inclusive Approaches to Mentoring Historically Underrepresented Groups

Being the only person of color in the room is an all-too-familiar experience for historically underrepresented groups (HUGs) in higher academia. Graduate students of color, especially those originating from disadvantaged backgrounds, often face a myriad of struggles, including, but not limited to, feelings of not belonging, lack of support, implicit and explicit biases, siloing and gaps in mentorship, among other challenges. Faculty from HUGs find that this trend continues; they are often the only faculty of color in the department and face many of the same challenges with no end to the cycle.

Unfortunately, these experiences have become an expectation for students and faculty from HUGs in higher academia. Conversations related to diversity and inclusion are often divisive, accusatory and defensive, and primarily focus on the struggles and injustices as a foundation for healing. Diversity and inclusion are often associated with negative stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings. Checkbox diversity and inclusion action plans only drive the problem deeper into institutional culture, and although bridging the equity gap is an important aspect of leveling the playing field, administrators and trainers must recognize that steering the institutional culture can be a glacial and trying process.

Recognizing Traits that Help HUGs Succeed

There is, however, opportunity to improve the negative experiences and learn from the traits of those who have overcome them. Mentoring and specialized support are integral to closing the equity gap and helping HUGs achieve success in higher academia. Ongoing and unpublished research at Brown University, led by Dr. Dioscaris Garcia, member of ASM’s Inclusive Diversity with Equity Access and Accountability (IDEAA) Committee and author of this article, has involved mentoring hundreds of students and junior faculty from dozens of racial backgrounds. Over the past couple of decades, this work has allowed researchers to collect information and feedback on HUG experiences that have led to the identification of unifying strategies and traits that help HUGs traverse and find success within and beyond the academic environment. This research has demonstrated that mentoring strategies built from the voices and experiences of HUGs and based on understanding and acceptance drawn from the strengths and struggles of HUGs, are uniquely effective at bridging the gap between adaptation of the system and individuals alike. Some of these unifying traits are discussed below.

Intimate Knowledge of Failure and Lack of Safety Net

According to Garcia’s ongoing research at Brown, acknowledging HUGs’ intimate knowledge of failure and lack of safety net is the most important factor in forging a relationship with that student, from the perspective of mentors and faculty. Regardless of cultural differences, it is beneficial to understand that students from HUGs in the academic space often originate from heavily disadvantaged backgrounds and are constantly reminded, “academic perfection is the only way out.” This reminder places a significant amount of stress on students who may be their family’s de-facto head of household, at least from an intellectual standpoint.

From a student’s perspective, changing the narrative from success or failure to using their extensive life experience to enrich their education has been shown to be an integral part of having students feel like they are an asset to the institution and can bring something to the table. Students feel empowered to shape careers that are unique to them. This empowerment has served as the absolute foundation for success in mentoring HUGs, as students from disadvantaged backgrounds begin to find comfort and value in the system of higher learning.

Grit

Grit, an uncommon trait in institutions of higher learning, is the most common trait amongst HUGs. Perhaps this is due to the selection processes, which lead individuals to become sole representatives of their communities in higher academia spaces. Alternatively, perhaps it is a necessary trait for survival, because of difficult life experiences. Grit is the forge in which the flames of success for HUGs are born. For faculty mentoring students, or junior faculty establishing their programs, filtering the challenges of an added workload, systemic bias and lack of mentorship through the optics of grit can make the difference between success and failure.

For students, grit is best enriched by embracing increased bandwidth that can “out-work the competition.” Although this practice can be polarizing within the departments and institution, for the purpose of increasing success within HUGs, encouraging students and faculty to embrace grit as an avenue of increasing confidence and empowerment has ultimately been beneficial in terms of successful outcomes for the individuals and the organization.

Drive and Persistence

Though persistence and drive, in the context of using diversity as an asset, are mutually beneficial, they are not always present at the same time. Drive, like grit, is an essential trait born out of necessity and survival, yet it is not infinite. Faculty and students often attribute fatigue and burnout as a primary reason to leave academia and pursue a different career track.

According to Garcia’s ongoing research at Brown, one of the most successful strategies used by inclusive laboratories is teaching students and faculty to draw from their drive and passion in moderation, which allows for a calmer and more parsimonious approach in training and mentoring. This approach provides an opportunity for both mentor and mentee to find a basal state of viable performance and, ultimately, work-life balance. Persistence stems from a student’s desire to strive for success or return to face their families and admit failure. In other words, drive serves as the furnace, which keeps the individuals going, and persistence is the fuel, which keeps the furnace going.

Basing Mentoring Strategies Upon Traits of Successful Trainees

Ultimately, the success of HUG faculty and students relies upon mentoring and opportunity. Although these individuals have overcome significant odds to reach higher academia and beyond, lack of mentoring leaves HUGs swimming through a sea of unknowns and exposed to pitfalls that may contribute to loss for the individual and, ultimately, for society. The heterogeneity of thought and problem solving brought forth by HUGs are a pillar of the advancement of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM), as well as representation of our society at large.

The ongoing research from Brown has shown that one of the most common diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) mistakes conducted by trainers and institutions is attempting to gain second-hand mastery of the experiences of HUGs, only to foster the self-assured belief that they can now dictate how these experiences can be fixed. Ultimately, this approach can be perceived as disenfranchising the HUGs of their own experiences, and subsequent ownership of their training experience. Training HUGs by recognizing their strength and basing mentoring strategies upon the traits of successful trainees will undoubtedly bring forth a new era of scientific enrichment. Mentoring and specialized support have been integral toward closing the equity gap and helping HUGs achieve success in higher academia. Compiling mentoring experiences and feedback from students and junior faculty over 2 decades have yielded the above tools towards improving the outcomes and experiences of HUGs in academia.

Before diving into this work, it is critical to be aware of 2 things:

  1. Understand the commonalities of the struggles of HUGs, and the effort it has taken them to overcome being in the same space as those with more privilege.
  2. Understand that diversity and inclusion is not a literal exercise. Checkbox diversity and inclusion action plans only drive the problem deeper into institutional culture.

Embracing this awareness and taking these steps will provide a strong foundation to cultivating a more inclusive environment for HUGs, and thus fostering a more welcoming field for all.

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