Sister Mentors Allows Women Doctoral Students To Help Each Other

When Dr. Shireen Lewis in 1997 founded Sister Mentors, a dissertation writing support group, her goal was simple: to empower more women of color to get doctoral degrees, a seemingly impossible task in the realm of graduate education dominated by White men and women.

Ten years later, the Washington, D.C.-based group has helped 28 women of color get their doctoral degrees, and, currently, 20 doctoral students are waiting to join their ranks.

Lewis’ desire to create Sister Mentors stemmed from her own sense of alienation while writing her dissertation as a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University. Lewis, who earned her doctorate in 1998, is executive director of Eduseed, a nonprofit group that promotes education among historically disadvantaged groups, and author of  Race, Culture and Identity in Francophone West African and Caribbean Literature and Theory: From Négritude to Créolité.

Studies show that 50 percent of all people who begin the doctoral process drop out at the dissertation writing stage. Evidence suggests that the numbers are higher for women of color.

To address a perpetual feeling of isolation that some women of color encounter in the academy, Sister Mentors brings women of different nationalities together so they can help each other. In an effort to stimulate a sentiment of peer mentorship among members, participants read each other’s work, often lend constructive criticism, and discuss among themselves obstacles that they encounter. Alumni members also offer guidance to those going through the process.

Dr. Koritha Mitchell, an assistant professor of English at Ohio State University, almost succumbed to the pressures of the dissertation writing process and nearly dropped out of the doctoral race. After a six-month writing slump, she wanted to give up.

Overly stressed and thoroughly exhausted, Mitchell, who is African American, turned to Sister Mentors in 2005. There, she found a group of women struggling with the same issues she was: a lack of funding, feelings of isolation and alienation, and disgruntled dissertation advisors.

“First, Dr. Shireen gave me a task. She told me to write a journal [documenting] the reasons I wasn’t moving forward in my dissertation. That led to major breakthroughs,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell along with other doctoral candidates met once every three weeks to report their progress. Candidates also engaged in one-on-one mentoring with Lewis and other peer mentors.

Mitchell earned her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2005.

While the number of minority students awarded doctoral degrees continues to increase, there is still a large gap between people of color with Ph.D.s and their White counterparts.

During the 2005-06 academic year, U.S. universities awarded 46,596 research doctoral degrees, improving 5 percent from the year before. This total, which includes international students, represents the highest number of research doctoral recipients in U.S. history, researchers say. A total of 5,211 minority students were awarded research doctorates; a 2.6-percent increase over 2005. 

In 2005-06, 51 percent of all doctoral degrees from U.S. universities were awarded to women, and 11 percent went to women of color, according to the Sister Mentors Web site.

“Over the years, there has been a very slight increase in the number of women of color attaining doctoral degrees. But the increase is insignificant,” Lewis admits. “The numbers are low, and that’s our problem.”

Lewis, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, notes that the obstacles that inhibit under-represented minorities from attaining graduate degrees have been documented and studied to exhaustion. The solutions, she insists, are most important.

“There is no science to this. We’ve helped 28 minority women attain doctoral degrees. Talk to some of these big universities and see what they have done as far as people of color in the last 10 years. We are getting results, and it’s because we understand that mentoring is key,” Lewis says.

In an effort to bridge the gap between the academy and the community, doctoral candidates from Sister Mentors are required to tutor girls of color once a month in Washington, D.C.’s middle and high schools.

“A mentor is simply someone who knows the ropes a little better than you and is interested in helping you succeed,” Lewis says. “Women, in general, will tell you that mentoring served them well.”

Since attaining her Ph.D., Mitchell has experienced her fair share of success. Last year, she was ranked among the top 10 most popular professors in her department and won a national postdoctoral fellowship to sponsor her forthcoming book.

Mitchell’s advice to other minority women on the path to doctoral degrees is to persevere.

“We all wanted to give up a million times along the way. But it is truly lovely on the other side of the degree,” she says.

–Michelle J. Nealy

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