Mentors for all

By Chris Palmer, American Psychological Association

In the spring of 2013, Mei Chen was seeking advice on applying to graduate school. She wrote emails to a handful of professors asking for guidance but got no response. A few weeks later, she wrote to a few others. Again, no response. In reality, though, there was no Mei Chen: She was a persona, one of many with race-signaling names created by researchers who sent out such emails as part of a study on faculty’s responses to emails seeking mentorship. The study found that faculty primarily responded to such requests from students with non-minority-sounding names (Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 100, No. 6, 2015). Mei Chen, and the research behind her, shed light on a real problem in academia.

“While it’s possible these students with names that signaled racial minority status were not intentionally ignored, minority students are certainly not getting the same encouragement or opportunities,” says Jennifer Teramoto Pedrotti, PhD, associate dean for diversity and curriculum in the College of Liberal Arts at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly).

Now, in an effort to make the field of psychology more inclusive to all individuals, universities and professional societies are identifying the challenges that underrepresented trainees face in finding mentors and offering programs.

Stretched thin

Being ignored by faculty is just one of the many ways that psychologists and psychology students from historically disenfranchised backgrounds are denied equitable mentorship. Other common experiences include unequal access to research and training opportunities, fewer chances to connect with professors and a lack of mentors who understand their diverse life experiences.

Many of these challenges are brought on by the lack of diversity among a department’s faculty. “As a student, if you’re not seeing anyone who looks like you at your institution, it might be a little intimidating to reach out and initiate contact,” Pedrotti says.

Such hesitation not only translates to a failure to connect with potential mentors but could mean missed chances to engage in career-advancing activities outside the classroom. “If I have a research project coming up, I’m more likely to offer the opportunity to someone who’s been coming to office hours or engaging with me in other ways,” Pedrotti says. “So, having access and regular contact with professors is important.”

In addition to seeking career advice, underrepresented individuals often look for mentors who understand the cultural component of their work, says Edward Delgado-Romero, PhD, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Georgia. They also seek mentors who have been through some of the same hardships they have faced. “Young people find it refreshing to talk to someone who they don’t have to convince that their experiences are real,” he says.

Unfortunately, even for trainees lucky enough to have faculty from diverse communities in their department, chances are those professors already have a full mentoring load. “If you’re the only faculty of color, for example, in a training program that is trying to increase the number of students of color, you’re probably going to be stretched fairly thin,” says Karen Suyemoto, PhD, co-founder of the Asian American Psychological Association’s (AAPA) Leadership Fellows Program.

Sharing struggles

When a university department lacks diversity, faculty members’ cultural competence is key to mentoring students from underrepresented groups, says Pedrotti. “You don’t always need a perfect match,” she says. “For example, someone who’s Asian-American doesn’t need to mentor only Asian-American students.” Being open and listening to all kinds of students as they share their experiences can provide a needed sense of validation, she adds.

Delgado-Romero says if trainees can’t find a mentor in their home department, they should branch out by looking for a match in an adjacent department, a nearby hospital, a state association or an ethnic-minority psychological association such as the National Latinx Psychological Association (NLPA) or the Association of Black Psychologists. Approaching people at conferences is also a viable way to find mentorship. “When I was starting out, I drove a couple of hours just to attend a workshop given by [noted multicultural counseling psychologist] Patricia Arredondo, just hoping to get some of her wisdom,” recalls Delgado-Romero, who went on to found the NLPA with Arredondo. “She ended up inviting me to lunch and she became my mentor, but I had to take the step of really reaching out and trying to connect.”

As someone who now mentors students around the country, Delgado-Romero seeks mentees who are fairly independent but may need some support in specific areas. “If someone is just wanting to share struggles, that’s OK too, but at some point, we have to get to work and do something,” he says.

Meanwhile, all faculty can help by becoming more savvy about diversity through the trainings on implicit bias, microaggressions and related topics that many university departments are beginning to offer.

Finding community

While faculty demographics are striving to catch up with those of the wider society, several programs are making it easier for trainees from underrepresented communities to get the mentorship they need. They include:

Society of Indian Psychologists Native-to-Native Mentoring Program. With just over 300 psychologists in the United States identifying as American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian, the chances of a Native trainee finding a Native mentor are slim. As a result, most Native students settle for mentors with whom they may not be able to connect due to cultural differences.

To help Native students get the mentorship they need, the Society of Indian Psychologists (SIP) runs the Native-to-Native Mentoring Program

, which provides “communal counsel,” modeled in a way that is culturally congruent for Native students. Each year, Native students also have an opportunity to take part in a gathering held in conjunction with SIP’s annual conference.

“The leaders of the mentoring group help establish not just professional networking but also cultural and community networking, with support from the larger Native group,” says psychologist Wendy Peters, PhD, an associate faculty member at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio. “We also keep in touch through virtual meetings and a second in-person gathering each year. As our program has evolved, our mentees have eventually become mentors, and we continue to grow more each year.”

This kind of communal support for Native students has made an enormous difference for their careers. “Top scholars in their classes have told me, ‘Were it not for your program, I would have dropped out and walked away,’” Peters says. “It would be a shame to lose brilliant young people from the profession, but this is frankly where we’re at.”

AAPA Early Career and Graduate Student Leadership Fellows Programs. Suyemoto, a former AAPA president, helped the association launch its Leadership Fellows Program 10 years ago when it noticed that early career Asian-American psychologists seemed reluctant to step into major leadership roles.

In the two-year program, two fellows are matched with a mentor who they meet with once a month in person or by phone. The focus is on leadership development, but discussions often touch on professional and personal goals. Common topics also encompass successfully negotiating cultural and racial discrimination and internalized racism. In the second year, mentees take on a project that is aimed at expanding on their professional interests as well as advancing AAPA’s mission.

“Many of the mentors are alums of the program,” says Nellie Tran, PhD, an assistant professor of community and multi-cultural counseling psychology at San Diego State University, who has co-directed the early career fellows program for several years. “So, they understand that we’re looking for someone who will work with our fellows in a holistic manner.” In 2017, Tran developed and launched the AAPA Graduate Student Leadership Institute, a three-day intensive program addressing the mentoring and professional community needs of Asian-American students. “We wanted to bring together folks who were sprinkled around the country, provide them with a strong foundation, network and a support system to help them through their programs,” Tran says.

The APAGS Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity LGBTQ+ Mentoring Program. Trainees identifying as LGBTQ+ can have a particularly hard time finding mentors, says Mary Guerrant, PhD, chair of the APAGS Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity and an assistant professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Cobleskill. One big challenge is visibility. “Unlike more visible identities, such as race, LGBTQ+ identities are often much less apparent,” she says. “This makes it hard for LGBTQ+individuals to find LGBTQ+-identified mentors without outing themselves, which can be a challenge in and of itself.”

Particularly for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, there’s a stigma associated with even asking for a mentor. Research also shows LGBTQ+ graduate students and early-career professionals feel a need to overcompensate, by showing they can do things on their own, when faced with perceived discrimination or marginalization (The Career Development Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4, 2001; Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol. 40, No. 2, 2009).

As a result, many are hesitant to ask for any kind of help. Also, while disclosing identity can be an issue of comfort, in some places it’s also a safety issue.

The APAGS mentoring program started five years ago. Each year, the program pairs about 50 early psychology graduate students with more advanced graduate students or professionals. Typically, matches are based on specific needs. Some want to be matched with a mentor with a similar professional background. Others want mentors who can help them decide how to come out in their graduate program or the world at large. Other trainees may want to do research with LGBTQ+ individuals and seek mentors with expertise in this area.

APA Office on Disability Issues in Psychology Disability Mentoring Program. Individuals with disabilities are sorely underrepresented in graduate psychology programs and careers. Few enter the field, and those who do often experience frustration that can lead to higher-than-average dropout rates. APA’s Office on Disability Issues in Psychology developed a mentoring program to counteract these trends.

The Disability Mentoring Program matches students from various disability identities with either a mentor who identifies as an individual with a disability or an ally who is closely engaged in disability issues, research, practice or education. Mentors help to empower their trainees by offering insights on career paths, recommending which areas to study and even helping trainees navigate family relationships in which loved ones may not fully support a student’s career goals.

The program supports an average of 50 mentor-mentee pairs, and has a waitlist. Some mentors continue to work with students after they have graduated. “We ask that mentees take the lead as far as introducing themselves and develop at least three goals to achieve within the mentoring relationship,” says Maggie Butler, PhD, director of the Office on Disability Issues in Psychology. “We also ask that mentors develop goals, because we believe that mentorship should be beneficial for the mentor as well.”

Cal Poly College of Liberal Arts Underrepresented Students Network. Despite its efforts to attract more students and faculty of diverse backgrounds, Cal Poly is still a predominantly white institution. That prompted the College of Liberal Arts Student Diversity Committee to set up the Cal Poly College of Liberal Arts Underrepresented Students Network, a peer-mentoring program that helps students find community, learn about career resources and get advice from peers. Students on the committee offer training on a variety of topics—including active listening and understanding the power of assumptions—to peer mentors, each of whom works with two to four mentees.

Cal Poly also hosts the BEACoN Mentor Network, an effort to bring under­graduate research opportunities and mentoring to students from historically disenfranchised backgrounds. The network offers professional development opportunities for students and faculty, including workshops on such topics as conceptualizing personal strengths, authentic storytelling and implicit-bias training. “It makes students feel more comfortable interacting with academics,” says Pedrotti, who oversees the Underrepresented Students Network and co-created BEACoN. “Then, on top, some students are able to form strong connections that lead to more formal mentoring.”


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