The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have had a profound impact nationally and globally; the number of students reaching out to faculty whose work centers related issues (e.g., systemic racism and prejudice) has skyrocketed in the following months. However, informal narrative accounts indicate students are feeling isolated and frustrated in coming to terms with how these situations entwine with their academic experiences and daily interactions (Diep, 2020). Further, many are seeking spaces to discuss how this turning point has shifted their own perspectives of their identities and long-term life plans (Calma, 2020).
Unfortunately, faculty are reporting that they do not have the tools, language or space to offer adequate support to their mentees. Graduate students who identify as Underrepresented and Racial/ Ethnic Minority (UREM) are particularly vulnerable as the disparity in their degree attainment increases at each degree level (Estrada et al., 2016). This is concerning given that the racism pandemic is not new - and may/will occur again (Shullman, 2020); it has also been recognized as intersecting with other forms of long-standing prejudice within academia (e.g. sexism; Eaton, Saunders, Jacobson, & West, 2019). Thus, it is important that faculty be equipped to discuss UREM doctoral students’ needs, including inequalities related to race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and other historically-marginalized identities.
Faculty mentors are in a critical position to address and navigate local and national events related to racism and prejudice because of their power and privilege in academic settings. Studies have shown that work settings are often the one place where people interact at an intimate level with people of other racial/ ethnic or marginalized group on a daily basis (Byars-Winston, 2010; Hammell, 2013; Walters et al., 2016).
For UREM graduate students, faculty mentors’ ability to engage in rich and honest discussions about inequities is critically important. Studies have shown that UREM’s ability to have direct and honest discussions about their personal identities, and experiences with inequity with their mentors, impacts their sense of inclusion and general psychological wellbeing (Brown & Brothaus, 2019; Callahan et al., 2018; Rodriguez et al., under review; Walters et al, 2016). Further, Rodriguez et al. (under review) found that Black doctoral students’ personal ties and relationship quality with their mentors influenced their attitudes towards permanence, academic adjustment, achievement emotions, and research productivity.
The EMPWR Faculty Working Group is working to foster a climate in which difficult discussions can occur within mentor-mentee and other types of relationships in our department. This would include highlighting the importance of non-UREM students and mentors initiating or actively participating in these dialogues. Finally, we hope to develop and implement recommendations for graduate programs in psychology from the feedback we will be collecting. This will help in the designing of practices that increase informal mentoring practices around difficult topics related to race for the purpose of long-term climate change.
The plan is for this to be an ongoing effort that will continue for faculty in the Department of Psychology. Further, we will provide additional readings that align with ongoing social issues and concerns relevant to UREM doctoral students’ needs.
For this first round of the program, we are focusing on the needs of UREM doctoral students in the Department of Psychology. Faculty who mentor or advise doctoral students are strongly encouraged to participate. This is in part because of the lack of graduate mentorship training opportunities available; recent calls to action from Black students; and other mentoring concerns raised through informal narratives. By keeping this narrow focus, we may be able to increase comfort around engaging in difficult but important dialogues.
Leadership & Sponsors
This working group was conceived and is being organized by Dionne Stephens and Asia Eaton. However, Drs. Stephens and Eaton will not be delivering the instructional content, but will be facilitating discussions and disseminating relevant resources and information.
The Psychology chairperson, Jeremy Pettit, has continuously voiced strong support for this program and has committed to identifying sources of departmental funding for the effort.
This project is supported by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, Division 9 in the American Psychological Association through their Small-Scale Events Advancing SPSSI Grants.