Mentoring students of color at a predominantly white institution

Recognizing that many students of color would prefer to have a mentor with the same racial identity, college leaders are working to strike a balance that provides robust support, without overwhelming faculty and staff of color. Writing in Inside Higher Ed, S. Brooke Vick, associate provost for faculty and diversity initiatives and associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania-based Muhlenberg College, says that an institution-wide commitment has been essential in addressing this challenge at her primarily white institution.

Representation, systemic change both matter

Vick notes that, in one recent survey of 2,000 college undergraduates, 56 percent of Black respondents, 21 percent of Asian students, and 20 percent of Latinx students said they prefer to have a mentor with the same racial identity.

Other experts have noted the benefits when students can access professionals who have similar backgrounds and understand students’ lived experiences. “Representation matters. Whether it’s guidance counselors, teachers, mental health providers or leaders,” having a diverse workforce “directly impacts students’ experiences in school—and their educational outcomes,” Natalie Wheatfall-Lum, EdTrust West’s director of education policy, told Ed Source.

Leaders throughout secondary and postsecondary institutions say they’re working to bring on more counselors of color but emphasize the need for a broader commitment. “Black and brown counselors are absolutely important,” said Joshua Salazar, a student success coach at Cal State San Bernardino who identifies as Black and Latino. “But it shouldn’t come down to us to improve outcomes for students of color. It should be a system effort. Every person on campus, no matter who they are, should be focused on this.”

Related: Adanna Johnson on Georgetown’s whole-institution approach to equity and inclusion >

A responsibility shared by many across campus

That kind of institution-wide approach has been crucial to providing powerful support for students of color at Muhlenberg, Vick says. Wraparound mentoring is a core component of the college’s Emerging Leaders Program (ELP), a 10-year-old program that provides community and resources for students from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic communities who have demonstrated leadership potential.

Around half of the program’s mentors identify as white, noted Vick, who serves as co-director of the ELP. Cognizant of the “numbers imbalance,” Vick says Muhlenberg has been careful “to avoid taxing the already overburdened faculty and staff of color” by nurturing a whole-institution commitment to effective mentorship. She highlights three strategies central to the approach:

  • Three mentors for every Emerging Leader (EL). To increase the chance of a meaningful connection and show students the value of building their network, Muhlenberg ELs have several kinds of mentors. Their peer mentor, a second-year EL, focuses on campus and academic insights from the student perspective. Their staff mentor helps ELs connect with important resources and can address social and family concerns. A faculty mentor, meanwhile, serves as an academic guide, advising on study skills and teaching first-year seminars.

Related: ‘Someone I knew I could call’: GSP’s growing mentorship program >

  • Thoughtful orientation and ‘insider secrets.’ From day one, Muhlenberg ELs have enrichment, community-building, and leadership development opportunities. Campus leaders emphasize the importance of collaboration and seeking out help—and speak candidly about higher education’s “hidden curriculum.”

Related: Georgetown course helps first-gen students master ‘the hidden curriculum’ >

  • Empowering mentors to best serve students. While Muhlenberg isn’t able to pair every student with a mentor of the same racial and ethnic background, it commits to making sure that all mentors “are highly culturally aware and have been offered support and training to address issues that arise surrounding race and identity.” Mentors have demonstrated a commitment to inclusive pedagogy, equity, and justice. Faculty and staff mentors receive both programmatic and financial support.

Vick reports that Muhlenberg is in the fortunate position of having a surplus of faculty and staff volunteering to serve as mentors. ELs, meanwhile, are achieving four-year graduation rates five or six percentage points higher than Muhlenberg’s general student population.

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