Which school years were your hardest, socially and academically? Ask anyone and there’s a decent chance high school is at the top of the list. It’s a confusing and challenging time, when students often feel out of place, isolated, or invisible.
Unfortunately, many students of color across America experience these challenges to a particularly high degree. Our society tends to subscribe to a singular image of success in school: a specific way that people should look, talk, and behave. This image often excludes people of color, threatening their likelihood of reaching their academic goals.
As a Black woman who attended predominantly white schools all of my life, I have experienced these feelings of isolation and invisibility. It was often difficult to find peers, teachers, or advisors with whom I could fully connect, and to reconcile my racial/ethnic identity with my identity as a scholar.
Fortunately, this did not stop me from being successful academically and continuing on to higher education. One of the things that made the difference for me was the opportunity to connect with Black women with whom I shared similar experiences. One of these women was a mentor I was matched with during the summer residence component of my pre-college program at the University of Wisconsin. Looking back, I realize how I was in need of an authentic and supportive relationship with a young, Black, professional woman.
My mentor embodied a critical element of any educational journey: representation. In educational contexts, representation means that young people who belong to groups that have historically been underrepresented in higher education have role models and examples that look like them or have similar backgrounds and experiences. These examples prove that people of color can be successful in many different contexts – academically, financially, or otherwise.
So how do we–as mentors and as educators who work with mentors–create these benefits for students of color in educational spaces?
Allow mentors to be genuine and authentic.
Students of color are often expected to perform whiteness in educational spaces. We switch up the way that we communicate and express ourselves in order to meet biased societal expectations for intelligence and capability. When individuals are asked to behave differently to demonstrate their adequacy, it reinforces the idea that their true identity is not good enough, effectively reinforcing the perceived inferiority of an entire group.
Strong, representative mentors possess an ability to be authentically themselves, counteracting the aforementioned consequences. They connect with their mentees by showing pride for the things that others around them may not understand, including aspects of their culture, religion, or personal interests. I enjoyed spending time with my mentor because she was real. She never tried to be anyone else; on the contrary, she seemed comfortable in her skin. In turn, she subconsciously gave us permission to be comfortable in our own bodies. We felt happy and affirmed when she was around because of the safe space she created and the confidence she conveyed. She talked about hair with us, and even did ours sometimes. She’d join us as we listened to music and danced in the hallways, without any judgement. Even in a very white space like UW, where most others probably wouldn’t understand, I was proud to celebrate my Blackness. I appreciated that my mentor allowed us to see this side of herself; it made me feel like I belonged.
Encourage students to be genuine and authentic as well.
When a mentor is able to be genuine in all contexts, they pass on the message that their mentees can be authentic as well. This is something that occurs naturally, but should also be done intentionally. Mentors should encourage authenticity by instilling a sense of pride in their mentees. This can be done in conversation, through other interactions, or through various activities and projects. For example, my mentor convinced us all to join a talent show where we performed in front of the entire program. Our performance was a true reflection of who we are because all of these components were interwoven with our identities. The songs were the same that pumped through our headphones everyday, the dance moves were popular with our peers, and the style was somewhere between nerdy high school kid and fierce, fly teenage girl.
Mentors should also fully accept every part of their mentees’ personal identities, including those they might not share in common. Many of us have identities that intersect. For example, I am Black, but I am also a woman. I’m a midwesterner. I’m a daughter, and I’m a scholar. My mentor never made me feel as though I should behave a specific way because of any one piece of who I am. I was allowed to be serious, nerdy, goofy, reserved or loud depending on my mood or the day. Appreciating and celebrating all the different pieces of a person helps to foster strong self-esteem that can withstand feelings of isolation and being misunderstood.
Mentors need to have high expectations.
Being a mentor can be difficult, and it may seem like enough work just to be genuine and encourage young people’s authenticity in a society that often marginalizes or stereotypes underrepresented people. However, successful role models must maintain high expectations of their mentees, despite the hardships mentees may face. It may feel better to be more lenient or allow students to underperform when they have had a hard day or struggle with their work. In reality, this only sends the message that students don’t have to try in the face of challenges.
My mentor liked to have fun with us, and provided opportunities for us to relax during downtime, but she also expected us to meet or even exceed our school’s expectations. During our summer program, there were days when we considered skipping classes to enjoy the sun or avoid rehearsing for final presentations. My mentor made it clear that this was unacceptable, because our success depended on our hard work and dedication. Due to biased societal norms, we women of color actually needed to be working harder than those around us in order to be perceived as intelligent and capable. Being authentically ourselves never meant refusing to do work that we didn’t like (math, in my case) or using our negative experiences to shy away from achieving our goals.
I was fortunate to know someone during a crucial point in my educational journey who was able to embody the representation I needed. But when I reflect on my experience, I realize that one representative mentor should not be considered enough to combat the isolation and invisibility experienced by so many students of color. There is a lot more that we could be doing to ensure that students see themselves excelling academically and professionally. Authentic, genuine mentoring is a great place to start, and I encourage us to continue finding creative ways to show students that their potential can become their reality regardless of their background.
Siettah Parks was a Programs Manager for CollegeSpring.