#7 Mentorship: the secret weapon to combating inequities of higher education

Illustration of mentorship with an analogy of a woman being watered as a plant and being inspired
Photo credit: Giving Compass

Blog Post by Alessandra Zuniga 

February 2021

I still remember my very first day as a microbiology teaching assistant over five years ago. As I scanned the room full of wide-eyed students patiently waiting for me to make the first move of the semester I was washed over with a mix of nervousness and excitement. But I knew that very day with not an inch of hesitation that teaching at the college level was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Little did I know my certainty of becoming a professor of biology would be tainted with doubt when discovering that Hispanic females only make up a mere 3% of faculty members at post-secondary institutions in the U.S. Two parts of my identity have put me at a monumental disadvantage that I had for so long been blind to. Although this tiny number was a huge blow to my morale it was also a much needed, rude awakening. This past January was national mentoring month, which made me reflect on my career trajectory and how I’ve made it this far in a system that has little hope for someone like me. The realization suddenly came to me. My success thus far has been a product of all of the relationships I’ve fostered – a little thing called mentorship has propelled me steadily forward like the sails on a boat.

As I evaluate what mentorship has done for me at each turning point in my academic and research career, there is much to be thankful for. I have had the good fortune of being mentored by strong, steadfast women in the sciences. As an undergrad, my college mentor introduced me to the fascinating discipline of ecology, shared research opportunities, and guided me through competitive applications. My very first research experience as an undergraduate was supervised by a young Ph.D. student who despite being in the midst of writing her dissertation took me under her wing and showed me the diverse and mysterious world of soils. My aunt who immigrated from Mexico, learned a second language, and acquired her doctorate degree in economics has been a prime example that the path of greatest resistance is often the most rewarding. And now my current Ph.D. mentor, Dr. Amelie Gaudin, who has taught me the importance of time management and encouraged me to set goals for myself and stick to them. These are just few of my many mentors that have contributed to the fountain of inspiration. All of which are models that in many ways I aspire to emulate as I navigate the academic world.

I used to refuse asking others for help because I viewed it as a sign of weakness. More recently I’ve recognized that being involved in mentorship has enhanced my mental well-being, given me the confidence to walk a non-traditional path, and ultimately encouraged my retention in grad school. I have also learned from these various interactions that not all mentorships have the same wisdom to offer. I have experience with formal and informal mentorships, and both have proven to positively impact my growth. However, in many cases informal relationships have provided unique and meaningful insight that may be absent from conventional mentoring styles. In fact, much of my career inspiration did not arise from traditional research advising, but rather from sharing personal stories of perseverance and overcoming challenges with women of similar life histories. In the following I give my two cents on building, sustaining, and taking control of mentorship networks. I hope those reading this can leave with a newfound awareness for the value of mentorship.

Mentorships are often viewed as a one-way investment, but everyone involved should have something to gain from it. Keep in mind that there is only so much that you can contribute to the success of another person. So be wary of constantly giving and not taking enough time and space for personal growth. My most valued relationships have been ultimately founded on mutual trust and time investment. When this is lacking, the relationship easily falls through the cracks. My past mentorships that proved unsuccessful dissolved quickly because they felt forced, unbalanced, or because of failure to set clear expectations on both ends. Therefore, it is important to have realistic and transparent expectations of each other and establishing those together from the start. Although differences of opinion may arise, this should not be the focal point of the relationship. I know now to always keep my relationships in check by ensuring that the exchange promotes positive feedback. Good mentors will advocate for your success no matter what that looks like. Lastly, it is important to differentiate those who act versus those who truly serve as mentors. An authentic mentorship unravels organically, stimulates you spiritually and intellectually, and has genuine intentions. In the same way, good mentors are those that create a safe space that is inviting yet enforces some level of accountability.

An essential skill of career development is proactively seeking these relationships with colleagues, professors, or someone you deeply admire in your field of study. Instead of waiting for a formal mentorship to come around explore other mentorship opportunities using a broader lens. One person alone certainly cannot fulfill all of one’s mentoring requisites. A more holistic approach is to identify multiple mentors that each can contribute to a different area of the mentee’s personal and professional success as well as for different stages of career development. A big misconception I have encountered is that a mentor must be a more experiences or more successful individual, and this could not be further from the truth. I know from personal experience that it is possible to build worthwhile relationships by looking laterally to classmates, peers, and lab mates. In this way not only is teaching and learning operating in both directions, but technical skills and creative ideas are reciprocated.

I strongly believe that women, people of color, and marginalized groups benefit and flourish the most from mentorship networks. However, one major shortcoming is that the disparity of underrepresented women in academia means there is a deficiency of available mentors to serve younger, aspiring, academic minorities. This is why as I continue on this path toward professorship being a good mentee and learning how to mentor others has become a priority of mine. As I take on more mentorship roles, I don’t just want to passively be a role model to others. I want to actively empower and teach others how to overcome the many obstacles of higher education. If I am going to break that statistic and promote the representation of minorities in STEM, then I must open the way for others behind me. In the end, I hope to give back to the process that once helped me advance to where I stand now.

In my experience, committing to a mentorship network has been as simple as surrounding myself by a cohort of inspiring career driven women. My achievements have been in large part due to the unwavering support system of those women who’s shoulders I stand on. That figure three no longer haunts me at night, and it certainly has not discouraged me from continuing to pursue my goal of becoming a professor. On the contrary, learning of the disparity of women and minorities in academia has fueled my motivation to dismantle the greater systems of oppression and to lead others to do the same. In my experience, mentorship is so much more than a glorified friendship, it is a powerful tool that can be used to combat deep-rooted systemic inequities.