Aligned Blog: Mentoring Across Difference

By Sonia A. Garcia, Ph.D., Scientific Diversity Program Manager, Office of Equity & Inclusion

I recently attained my Ph.D. in Molecular Medicine from the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Navigating through higher education was difficult as a Latina woman and first-generation student. Since high school, I’ve often sought out mentorship from professors that I related to and programs dedicated to helping minority students from disadvantaged backgrounds traverse their careers. One of those was the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program which prepares college graduates historically underrepresented in science and medicine to enter and succeed in rigorous biomedical Ph.D. programs. My postbac program prepared me immensely for graduate school. I was able to take graduate courses, conduct research in a state-of-the-art lab and gained hands-on experience working with laboratory animals. Thankfully, I had a great graduate-student mentor who allowed me to see firsthand, and understand, the life of a graduate student. I also had a wonderful mentor in my principal investigator who met my expectations and prepared me to embark on my journey in graduate school.

While I was able to find mentors throughout my academic career, there was a lack of access to mentors, especially in graduate school, that shared a similar background as me. I even had to walk away from mentors because I felt misunderstood; their expectations were not clear or did not align with what I needed as a mentee. I often felt isolated because my program did not represent my identity or experience. Despite these challenging experiences, data suggests there are benefits to mentoring across difference.

Cross-cultural mentorship provides an opportunity to learn about different mentoring styles and broadens perspectives. Mentees benefit from the exposure a mentor provides and can develop meaningful relationships with future colleagues in their respective profession. These and other benefits help a mentee thrive in graduate school and promote their professional and career development. Take, for example, a mentoring study done at California State University, Monterey, a public minority-serving institution. One hundred and thirty eight students participated in undergraduate research, with 38% being from an underrepresented, minoritized group and the rest being first-generation and low-income students. Data found that those who participated in mentoring, as compared to those who didn’t, had significantly higher cumulative GPAs, were more confident about their abilities to work in research and were more satisfied with the amount of time spent doing meaningful research.

In addition, the study compared the quality of mentorship, demonstrating that students who reported lower mentorship ratings struggled due to differences in communication styles or misunderstandings in tone and humor of their mentors. Their mentors were also less available to meet with them, worked less collaboratively and were less responsive to needs and questions. In contrast, students who rated their mentors highly reported feeling connected to their field of study and profession. In this same study, eleven students who participated in a structured, two-year mentoring program all applied to graduate school, and ten were accepted to at least one graduate program with funding in the form of fellowships, assistantships and grants.  

From both my experience and the data, we can observe the positive outcomes of mentorship. But there is still much to do when mentoring someone from a different or minoritized background to ensure success. As a mentor, there are ways to embrace and guide students from different backgrounds. If a mentor does not have a similar background as a mentee, institutions should have trainings available for all faculty to improve mentoring competency and cultural humility, and mentors should take these trainings seriously.

Understandably, mentoring styles may vary based on both the mentor and mentee but having open communication and setting clear expectations can help to mitigate challenges. A mentor should be aware that there are factors that may impact mentor-mentee relationships outside of the science, such as cultural beliefs, identity, privilege, stereotype threat and implicit biases. In addition, mentees might not have had the same opportunities as their mentor. Therefore, mentors should be aware of the ways societal factors might impact mentees or their experiences. Mentors should not view mentoring as an opportunity to maintain the status quo, but rather to expand creativity through diversity within their fields. Mentees often have different concepts and perspectives, and with great guidance and mentorship, this can lead to innovative and ground-breaking scientific discoveries.

Additional Resources:

Aligned is a blog written by the Center for Cancer Research's Office of Equity and Inclusion discussing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility and highlighting various ways we can all be more involved in creating a more diverse scientific workforce.

Posted on Wed, 07/05/2023