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Black and White: Making Cross-Race Mentoring Work and Work Well


Note: This post is co-authored with Ufuoma Abiola, a current graduate student in the Higher Education program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mentoring can be defined as a long-term relationship between a more experienced individual and a less experienced person that fosters the mentee’s professional, academic, or personal development. Mentoring can enrich the lives of both the mentor and the mentee.

In terms of career benefits, research has shown that individuals who are mentored earn more promotions, have higher salaries, and have more job satisfaction and commitment than individuals who are not mentored. The benefits for mentors include having access to new knowledge from the mentees and making a difference by establishing and guiding the next generation. Further research has shown that there are career benefits specifically related to cross-race mentoring, such as higher earnings for the mentee.

In terms of roles, a mentor should be an advocate for the mentee by promoting the mentee’s strengths and securing resources for the mentee’s success. Mentors also facilitate and stimulate intellectual curiosity. One of the most valuable roles a mentor can play is that of someone who communicates and demonstrates the values of the profession and explains how it can be navigated. Mentors also help mentees to develop skills, including writing, researching, teaching, networking and general professional development.

In order to benefit more fully, mentees need to be honest about the areas in which they need mentoring. They also must use their mentor’s time wisely by being prepared for each interaction. Mentees should be open to receiving feedback in order to better themselves. Thinking critically about this feedback and learning to reflect on it is key.

Mentoring is vitally important to student success at colleges and universities across the nation. It is a positive factor in retention and completion rates. Students that have more interaction with faculty thrive academically and have more positive experiences on campus.

Research shows that the best predictor of college success for Black graduate and professional students is the presence of Black faculty members. Unfortunately, Blacks (as well as other people of color) make up only a small percentage of the professoriate. This fact results in a need for increased mentorship between Black students and White faculty members. Moreover, the onus for mentoring Black students should not rest solely on the shoulders of Black faculty members; White faculty members need to step up.

In order to ensure healthy mentor/mentee relationships between White faculty and Black students, some groundwork has to be laid.

First, both parties need to understand the barriers to a successful relationship and how to overcome these barriers. Next, both parties have to be open to learning based on their racial and cultural differences. Learning is best achieved when both parties are honest in their discussion of race and racial issues. The worst thing to do is to ignore race and ascribe to the notion of colorblindness or the idea that race does not matter in a relationship. The best cross-race mentoring relationships acknowledge racial differences but work to find commonalities.

A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Marybeth Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).

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