Many women of color (WOC) students have been silently suffering at Predominantly White Institutions (PWI’s) across the country. A deeper examination suggests these students are doing well academically, but struggling to maintain positive wellbeing in campus environments that may feel unwelcoming and at times hostile. When WOC psycho-social and academic experiences are considered in totality, many WOC students at PWI’s are surviving rather than holistically thriving in their college experiences. Persistent issues faced by women of color students include academic devaluing, rejection, social isolation, and stigma.
Data also reveal these experiences may be related to a number of negative outcomes for WOC students. According to researchers, despite general patterns of academic success, WOC students are more likely than their White counterparts to experience poor emotional health, low satisfaction with campus life and to drop out of college. Even as the number of WOC on college campuses increases, concerns about their wellbeing persist. WOC compose the largest group of non-White students at PWI’s and include international Black and Asian, African-American, Native American, Asian American, Latino and other non-majority persons.
As many colleges across the nation struggle to attract new students and retain existing ones, finding ways to better serve WOC student makes both moral and business sense. Recent research suggests that WOC who consistently engage with mentors experience more positive wellbeing. Students who are mentored have lower rates of college drop out, greater satisfaction with their college experience, higher GPA and academic performance, and make more significant progress toward post college professional plans according to several scholars.
Surprisingly few PWI’s have implemented mentoring programs that are tailored to the needs of WOC. In fact, WOC students have rarely been the focus of mentoring research or practice. The majority of undergraduate mentoring efforts and research studies have focused on general, predominantly white student populations, and socio-economically disadvantaged students. Little attention focused on the distinct needs that women of color, who come from varied socio-economic backgrounds and may do well academically. Leading scholars agree that Black Feminist scholarship indicates that WOC’s combined marginal racial-ethnic and gender statuses create distinct college experiences and mentoring needs. Institutional efforts to improve WOC students’ college related wellbeing must consider the unique historical and cultural factors that shape their experiences.
As African-American faculty members at a predominantly White liberal arts college in the Midwest, we recognized the need to better serve WOC students. We developed a mentoring model, the Holistic and Intersectional Ecological (HIE) framework, that centers the experiences of WOC students. The model is grounded in the Black Feminist ethic of caring and “other mothering” in which mentors function as surrogate family members who advocate for students’ holistic wellbeing. The framework seeks to support student needs across 5 primary areas of college-related wellbeing: emotional, psychosocial, academic, relational and professional needs. This framework recognizes the multiple personal and social contexts, past and present that shape WOC student experiences.
We established a mentoring program that places WOC in regular engagement with peer, community and professional mentors who desire to be in long term, ongoing relationship with WOC students. Mentoring groups meetings focus on each of the five college-related wellbeing areas. Monthly group mentoring meetings consist of topics ranging from developing healthy relationships, strategies for resilience and coping, managing mental health, familial and community expectations, academic preparation, and career opportunity development. Because WOC are from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, our approach to mentoring is multidimensional and comprehensive for the entire academic year with multiple touch points throughout the month in addition to the monthly sessions. In order to assess the effectiveness of our mentoring efforts, we asked students to reflect on the mentoring program and the role it played in navigating higher education. The range of responses from diverse students indicated students viewed the mentoring efforts positively and as enhancing their college related wellbeing. In the words of one student, “The mentoring program provided an opportunity to build a closer relationship with my peers, opportunities to engage faculty members, and a safe space to practice mindfulness and address personal care concerns.”
The feedback from the participants support the utility of the HIE mentoring model, and suggests that women students of color experience a range of emotional and psychosocial needs related to their campus and pre-campus experiences. The link found between caring mentorship and students’ holistic wellbeing suggests that formal, socially distant mentoring practices may have less utility for women of color. Improving mentoring efforts at liberal arts colleges requires moving beyond a traditional focus on academic risks associated with economic disadvantage to supporting psycho-social health and enhancing opportunities for social inclusion for students of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Faculty, staff and administrators can use the HIE model to guide and develop mentoring efforts, co-curricular programs and curricular practices that better align with the needs of women students of color.
There must be broad institutional support for mentoring programs in order for these interventions to have meaningful impact on WOC students’ holistic wellbeing. Furthermore, evidence from our mentoring program suggests an investment from administrators with emotionally support and dedicated resources has ensured the continual development and sustainability of the program. Our mentoring program has gained momentum over the last four years due to institutional messaging that centers mentoring as a valid, effective and necessary strategy for student development. Mentoring cannot be tangential to institutional objectives, and viewed as “add-ons” to the work of the college, but aligned with it’s diversity and inclusion objectives.
The data from our program suggest that administrators should seek to gain cooperation across academic and co-curricular units in support of WOC mentoring objectives. Additionally, faculty and staff should be aware of the unique institutional barriers faced by WOC at PWI’s, and how these factors can shape their college related needs and experiences. Cooperation across units means that faculty and staff across departments are aware of the mentoring objectives and practices and are prepared to offer support when necessary. We conclude that these efforts can support WOC success in the academy and provide an inclusive environment where all students thrive.
Dr. Fareeda Griffith is an associate professor and chair in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Denison University. Dr. Karen Powell Sears is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Denison University.