The Power of Academic Role Models “Like Me”
I was not the only one in the audience with tears streaming down my cheeks. Indeed, the heartwarming video of undergraduates opening and reading encouraging letters from their proud parents as they prepared to graduate was deeply moving. But this was not the reason for my tears at the conclusion of Dr. Mildred García’s keynote address at the Council of Graduate Schools annual meeting.
Rather, in Dr. García, I had finally found a role model who was, in many respects, just like me.
For some time now, I have embraced the idea that my own students could be empowered by learning about my personal experiences. In my role as a professor, I tell my Introductory Psychology students who I am and how I got here. I want them to see what is possible for them to accomplish since many of them are students of color or first-generation college students like me or come from working class backgrounds like mine. I share with them that my mother was from Puerto Rico and my father from Spain. Both ended up in Manhattan in the 1940s, not knowing any English. My mother graduated from high school but my father did not. They met and married. Shortly after I was born, my father landed a job as a New York City bus driver, offering a modest but stable income with benefits. My parents encouraged my sisters and me to excel in school because they saw education as the key to both a better income and a better life. I flourished with this encouragement and with a combination of grants, scholarships, a work-study job in dining services, subsidized loans, and a parent loan, I was able to attend Princeton University.
But the transition into college was difficult. I was not prepared for the social and academic rigors of an elite institution and no matter how hard I studied or how many times I revised my papers, I finished my first year with a B- average, a shock to the system of a former high school valedictorian. The comment a peer made to me shortly after I was admitted, “You only got in because you are Hispanic,” suddenly seemed true. I was filled with self-doubt.
Yet, I persisted.
And I’m glad I did. Things clicked in my junior year, when I found mentors who championed my success, and I realized that yes, not only can I do this but I’m going to get a PhD and become a professor, too!
I know in my heart that this is not just my story but also the story of many of my students. I see their eyes light up when they can see themselves in both my struggles and my accomplishments. Students can sense that I understand their experiences, that I’m rooting for them, and that success in whatever field they choose is within their grasp.
Sharing this information not only helps students of identities similar to mine, but all students, no matter their backgrounds. Studies have shown that instructor self-disclosures can enhance the academic experience by, for example, increasing class participation. Disclosures can also signal to students that the professor is a communally-oriented role model who is interested in them as whole persons. But with respect to students who have shared my experiences, I’ve also personally felt the power of meeting someone “like them,” someone “like me.” I cannot fully describe how powerful it is when students come up to me after class with excitement in their voices, having learned that there is someone like them doing work they want to do. But even though I experienced the profound impact of these interactions, I still did not fully appreciate how important it was for me to have a role model or mentor “like me” — that is, until I met Dr. García.
It’s not that I didn’t have great role models and mentors as a student. There were plenty of people who inspired me, opened doors for me, shared valuable information and guidance with me, and generally supported my career. I appreciate each and every one of these people. But none of these mentors were Latina (or a person of color, for that matter). It didn’t occur to me to seek out Latina mentors, and, frankly, I do not recall seeing any around that I could have sought out anyway. (And still, 20 or so years later, there are few of us. According to an American Psychological Association report, only 1.8% of tenured or tenure-track faculty identified as Latina; the percentage of Latina full professors is only .4%.)
In addition, my attempts to connect with other Latinos in college did not go well, which likely affected the value I placed on having a Latina mentor. As a first-year college student, I was made to feel unwelcome by members of a Latino student group for not being Latino enough. To some students in the group, this meant that I did not speak fluent Spanish, nor did I share an urban upbringing. Looking back, I understand the impulse to close ranks when experiencing marginalization at an elite institution. I also know that intersectionality had not yet permeated college culture. But this invalidating experience of cultural betrayal led me to adopt a more privately held Latina identity for fear of being called out or rejected by my group. So, I immersed myself in my academic and professional endeavors, as my mentors modeled for me, for many years. Privileging my professional identity over my Latina identity meant that I missed out on an important source of mentorship.
I have since grown to realize how empowering Latina mentors are to me as much as my presence is to students like me. And so, I now find myself in a different place altogether. As a mid-career professional, I recently had the chance to connect with Latina/o/x peers, mentors, and role models in two forums: a newly formed Latina/o/x faculty staff association at Wayne State University, shepherded into existence by our chief diversity officer, Dr. Marquita Chamblee, as well as the Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) Summer Leadership Institute, in which I participated last year. I’ve also joined the Diversity Scholars Network, a community of researchers who are committed to diversity and inclusion research. There is a joy in being in these communities, learning about the varieties of ways my peers and new mentors have all contributed to higher education and the wider community, and supporting others who share or appreciate my experiences. Meeting Dr. García was like an exclamation point: Look at what’s still possible for someone like me! And by extension, I get to show my students who are like me what is possible for them. By serving as mentors and seeking out our own mentors who are like us, we can belong to communities that empower us to accomplish more and to assist others to do so as well.
I want to close by offering two pieces of advice for others who are underrepresented in academia.
First, for those advanced in their careers, it’s never too late to find your community(ies). The intensive work of chief diversity officers (see here and here) as well as scholarship on intersectionality, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility have resulted in a greater appreciation of multiple identities as well as variation within identities. There are communities for you, where you can find peer mentors, role models, mentors, and sponsors. Despite the fact that a great deal of racial and ethnic identity development occurs during adolescence and emerging adulthood, you’re never too old to grow and find your community.
Second, the same advice goes to students, especially those who experience unexpected rejection from ingroup members. Push to be included, or simply seek out other groups. If some aspect of your identity is meaningful to you, find a place where you can feel welcomed and connect with others. For instance, the National Research Mentoring Network has improved access to mentoring for all trainees and allows them to search online based on shared demographics and experiences. Other programs, such as the NSF Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) and the Ford Foundation Fellowship Programs, offer networking and learning community opportunities with like-minded peers and mentors.
To privileged mentors who wish to guide students of different experiences, ensure that your students have all the tools and people available to them to be and feel successful. Educational research has shown that having a mentor of the same race/ethnicity predicts increased confidence and support, but is not the only factor related to positive academic outcomes. All mentors can work with their students to share resources like online mentoring networks to connect with others who are like them. Mentors can also work with their mentees to map out a developmental network, perhaps by using tools to learn where gaps in mentoring relationships may be, including gaps in diversity and identities. While one cannot assume that underrepresented trainees will desire mentors with the same experiences, open discussions of the potential benefits of having mentors with shared backgrounds and experiences can be beneficial to mentors and mentees alike. Likewise, trainees who are not underrepresented may benefit from widening their network to include mentors of diverse backgrounds. We all have a part to play in creating a more inclusive environment.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of being higher education professionals is witnessing our students succeed and embark on meaningful careers. We, especially those of us who are underrepresented in the academy, have important roles to play as powerful mentors for students and junior faculty. But this process is not just about them. It’s about our own development as well, and our willingness to recognize that, no matter our career stage, we too need role models who are like us.