Perspectives: The True Meaning of Mentorship

The True Meaning of Mentorship
One professor recounts how women scholars helped her navigate
the academy.

“Josephine, if I were you, I wouldn’t invest time in helping Kandace secure this position. She was not one of our strongest students, and we typically only assist those students who we believe to be stellar. You should be careful!”

Those are the words a full professor at Indiana University spoke to Dr. Josephine Harris,* a new senior faculty member who showed interest in mentoring me almost from the moment she began working at the university. Those words ring out to me each time I hear of a student struggling to complete a degree or embarking on a job search.

When I was a doctoral student at IU, I learned that having a mentor was critical for Black and other ethnic minority students. According to Wikipedia, in Greek mythology, Mentor was the son of Alcumus and, in his old age, a friend of Odysseus. When Odysseus left for the Trojan War, he asked Mentor to have charge of his son.

Thus, a mentor today is one who serves as a teacher, counselor, guide, protector and friend. The need for mentorship is even greater for minority students about to launch their first job search or graduate students moving to the next level of their professional life.

I entered my doctoral program immediately after earning a master’s, but without the blessing of the department faculty. The program chair at that time made the decision to admit me and override the rest of the faculty’s “no” votes. From that point, I was left to navigate the process solo. As I proceeded to the dissertation stage, a Hispanic junior faculty member agreed to be my chair. She was in the process of tenure and promotion review the year I was to write my dissertation. The outcome was not good — she was not granted tenure, which meant I needed to quickly get my research completed and the dissertation done.

Ultimately, I finished the dissertation and graduated with Ph.D. in hand, but no job prospects in sight. The problem was that I had not been mentored to understand the process of career development to be prepared for work in the academy. Most members of my cohort were busy presenting at national conferences and working as research assistants during our time of matriculation. Meanwhile, while I worked at the Gap, drove a limousine and was a grader for a faculty member in another college. As a first-generation bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D.-degreed woman, I had absolutely no clue about how to navigate the world of academe.

How did I make it? Three women took me on at different intervals of my journey. The Hispanic professor, in addition to chairing my committee, would periodically call or e-mail me to make sure things were going well. But because she needed to return to the job market at the exact time I was about to circulate my vitae, she had little time to mentor me through the process. One of my committee members, a Black woman, mentored me during the data collection and writing phase of the dissertation, and gave me a job as a grader for her large introductory history course. But because she was not a member of my academic field of study, her mentoring was limited to the dissertation. But then entered Dr. Josephine Harris, the senior faculty member mentioned earlier.

I began my post-graduate work as a visiting instructor the same time Josephine was hired at IU to teach in the department where I had just received my degree. She immediately began mentoring me, offering feedback on my vitae, inviting me to write and publish research and present at national conferences with her. Each of these elements is absolutely critical for anyone interested in becoming a college professor.

While cross-cultural mentoring can be as valuable an experience as any, the opportunity for me to be mentored by a Hispanic and two Black women provided me with what critical race theorists would call counterspaces to tell my counterstories. Counterspaces are those havens where ethnic minorities can go to find not just physical, but emotional and intellectual safety. The teaching, guiding, coaching, protecting, counseling and even friendship that these women shared with me provided the space where my voice was heard and made me more self efficacious. They believed that investing the time in this scholar, me, would provide a firm foundation for a more promising professorial career.

*Dr. Josephine Harris is a pseudonym.

— Dr. Hinton is an assistant professor of educational leadership, administration, and foundations at Indiana State University

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