New mentorship program aims to strengthen sense of belonging among students of color

According to a report of the Council on Diversity released in December of 2013, minority students reported experiencing a significant deficiency in faculty mentorship while at Tufts. To address this, Tufts has started a new mentorship program, aiming to improve the experience of underrepresented students by facilitating student-faculty relationships.

“Focus group data from multiple Tufts sources points to classroom-based problems with addressing or supporting diversity,” the report said. “[There is] insufficient training of faculty members to promote effective pre-major advising and overall mentoring; insufficient knowledge/appreciation of power dynamics between faculty members and students; and students feel silenced, inside and beyond the classroom, by racist/sexist comments or other forms of discriminatory behavior.”

Prior to the report, Tufts did not have any mentoring program in place for students belonging to minority groups, according to Adriana Zavala, an associate professor of Art and Art History. The only other programs in place prior to the new mentorship program included the Pre-major Advising program, as well as the four college transition advisors, who “serve as a point of contact and academic support for pre-major students from matriculation to major declaration,” according to the CTA website.

This past spring, several faculty members began discussing the new program with Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon, Zavala said.

“We just sort of brainstormed at this meeting, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had some sort of mechanism in place…[for] first…and second-year students of color?’” Zavala said.

Professor of Sociology and Department Chair Pawan Dhingra, one of the faculty mentors, explained the importance of having this mentorship program, acknowledging the difficulties faced by many students of color, especially in terms of finding mentors.

“Often times universities can be overwhelming spaces,” he said. “[Facilitating] a sense of belonging at Tufts…often involves having mentors, or people you can relate with. For students of color, that may not be as easy to find as [it is] for white students.”

This fall, the mentorship program hosted its first event: a dinner attended by interested students and faculty members. According to Dhingra, who was present at the event, the faculty first introduced themselves and then spoke to the students in small groups.

“The faculty sat down to hear what [the students] are saying about their own experiences at Tufts…and what they were excited by or intimidated by,” Dhingra said. “And then afterwards, faculty talked to individual students.”

The mentorship program hosted a second informal event on Nov. 13, according to Zavala. These meetings have provided a starting point for faculty members to determine the program’s structure.

“I think we’re trying to…devise a structure and see what kinds of structures evolve organically,” she said of the program’s upcoming plans.

According to Zavala, unlike the way in which pre-major advising assigns students to academic deans alphabetically, there are currently no concrete assignments between faculty and students. Instead, Zavala said that those involved hope that these faculty-student relationships will develop organically based on shared experiences.

“I was able to share with [a student]…that my parents are first-generation,” she said. “I’m a first-generation immigrant, my mother went to vocational school, my father didn’t go to college. I was able to share with the student, you’re looking at me, and I have a Ph.D., but let me tell you, when I went to college, I applied to the college in my town because I didn’t know any different … I can easily have a conversation with a student who has visions of being a college professor because their father was a college professor or their mother’s a college professor, but I also want to have the conversation with the kid from a small town in some faraway state, who’s looking around and thinking, ‘How did I get here?’”

One of the challenges faced by any faculty-student mentorship program is bridging generational gaps, while also providing an appropriate amount of time and catering effective connections for students. According to Zavala, faculty members are still figuring out how to address these challenges while also making sure they are able to commit to the program on their own schedules.

“We’re…in a learning curve where we’re trying to figure out who are the faculty who can commit the time to this,” she said. “None of us are 19, so what is it that appeals to a 19-year-old, what kind of event is conducive to a 19-year-old opening up about what they’re excited about or what they’re struggling with?”

Steph Gauchel, director of Student Affairs Pluralism Initiatives and director of the Women’s Center, has played a role in coordinating the mentorship program. She attested to the support that the Group of Six, of which the Women’s Center is a part, could provide.

“Faculty members have not developed a formal plan for Group of Six involvement, but are exploring possibilities of hosting mentor meetings in the different centers and involving the Group of Six directors or peer leaders in mentor meeting discussions as the program progresses,” Gauchel told the Daily in an email.

Although these details are still being worked out, both Zavala and Dhingra emphasized the impact the mentorship program could come to have for students of color at Tufts.

“Helping to create an environment inside and outside of the classroom where [students] feel challenged and able to learn and able to express themselves is my goal,” Dhingra said.