Dr. Marisela Chavez is an associate professor and chair of Chicana and Chicano studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills. (Photo courtesy California State University, Dominguez Hills)
Marisela Chavez was a junior at Occidental College in her hometown of Los Angeles when she decided she wanted to go to graduate school. With top academic credentials in hand, she reasoned, she could teach others the fascinating history she was learning, especially the little-understood legacy and contributions of Latinos and Latinas.
With her goal set, Chavez had only one big question: how does one get from here to there?
“Education was something my parents valued,” says Chavez, noting there was no question she was going to college. Still, “when you are 10 or 15 years old, you don’t realize what a professor is,” she says. “Even if you are in college, you don’t know what questions to ask.”
The “how” you achieve graduate degrees, pursue and attain tenure was a puzzle to her until Chavez met a professor at a nearby college who became her mentor. After that encounter, Chavez was set for a master’s. Eventually, she earned a Ph.D. at Stanford University.
“Aside from an uncle with a Ph.D., or teachers, I had no peer group to network or tell me how they got there,” says Chavez, an associate professor and chair of Chicana and Chicano studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills. “There isn’t any cookie-cutter way to do it.”
Chavez now counts nearly a dozen professors and other peers who have served as a mentor to her at various steps along her journey.
They range from teachers who gave advice on selecting graduate schools, preparing applications, writing papers for school and research proposals, selecting classes, sharing personal matters and concerns, and seeking honest feedback.
Hispanic Ph.D.s rare
Hispanics with Ph.D.s are like rare stamps, even after a generation of recruiting. According to a 2014 Census Bureau report, 193,000 Latinos had earned a doctoral degree as the highest degree attained—the lowest level of other major ethnic groups. Almost 3 million non-Hispanic Whites earned a doctorate. Asians earned 478,000 doctorates. African-Americans earned 206,000 doctorates, according to the Census report.
Those with a Ph.D. and tenure in higher education are scarcer, according to empirical observations from organizations and researchers in the field.
Mentorships have played a role in that reality in different ways and for different reasons, says Chavez and others who have worked in and with the academy to boost Hispanic participation in graduate and doctoral programs.
“The profession needs champions,” says Sarita E. Brown, president of Excelencia in Education, a research and think tank on higher education based in the nation’s capital.
“Higher education is important, but its role in society is not isolated,” she says, explaining that today’s range of career options for Hispanics is much broader than when opportunities began to emerge a generation ago.
Now, in addition to higher education careers, Hispanics with higher levels of education can increasingly look to law, science, business and other areas to achieve their goals, says Brown, a recruiting veteran at The University of Texas at Austin and a former executive director of the White House on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans from 1997 to 2000.
Commitment and mentorship
Regardless of the direction aspiring leaders want to pursue, “the mentor experience is important,” says Brown. “Does it have to be an organized program?” Brown asks.
“It doesn’t have to be. It’s [having a mentor] of great value, if it’s available. There are too many students who have to do this on their own.”
Indeed, there are no formally organized mentorship programs aimed at academic career minorities in higher education, according to higher education organizations committed to boosting the number of minorities in graduate schools.
Still, there appears universal consensus among experts that having a mentor—and actually several along the way—is imperative in navigating the career achievement track.
Christine O’Brien, an officer since 1979 at the Ford Foundation Predoctoral, Dissertation, and Postdoctoral Fellowship Program at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, says that even postdoctoral students who were accepted in the Ford program expressed early in its origins a sense of “isolation” during their studies.
One common comment from early fellows, O’Brien notes, was that a noticeable number were thinking of dropping out of the prestigious program and their postdoctoral programs. While they liked teaching and interacting with other students, she says, they wrote that they oftentimes felt like they were the only person at their college in a teaching role and interested in it.
Ford’s response was to fund an annual get-together for primarily the most recent fellows to gather in Washington, D.C., to meet each other and network about the challenges they faced.
“There’s an informal commitment,” says O’Brien. “But it’s extremely strong.”
For those not in the Ford program or one like that in the California State University System, such as Dr. Vasti Torres, a professor and dean of the College of Education at the University of South Florida, they echo Chavez and many fellow peers in offering similar advice.
Torres, a first-generation college student who immigrated to the United States at age 6, says taking the first steps—asking questions—to mentorship may be the hardest.
With that background, she spent much of her early college years not asking questions “for fear of looking stupid.”
As Torres recalls, “For me, I didn’t feel comfortable asking questions until my doctoral studies.”
As for the challenges students face, she says “there is no stupid question. I got tired of banging my face against the wall and feeling more comfortable with people who had not shared the same experience. If I had waited for a teacher who was a dean of education [before I began to ask questions], I may still be waiting.”
“You’re never too old to ask for help and get feedback,” says Torres, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. “If you get too proud, you’re in trouble.”
Like a number of people at her level, she stays in contact with mentors from years ago. “This is a lifetime relationship,” Torres notes.
Dr. Katy Pinto, an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, echoes her peers in suggesting that the more mentors, the better.
“You can’t have just one person to be the guru [on mentoring],” says Pinto. “The challenge is you need to have different mentors in different areas.”
Mentors would range from a friend off campus to whom one can talk and someone on campus to whom one can talk. “You can have a mentor in your department, for your research and maybe another when it comes to a job or an interview,” says Pinto.
For junior faculty, of which she considers herself a member, Pinto says it’s also important to have “someone who will give you a reality check. … Someone pulled me by the arm and told me, ‘You won’t have enough time for tenure,’” says Pinto, explaining a colleague was concerned the amount of time she was putting into service would not be as valued by her superiors as she valued it.
Someone needs to be “honest with you and keep you on track,” she says, as a safeguard against disappointments later.
That includes offering candid thoughts about whether the way the student is juggling school and personal challenges is “really sustainable in my work/life balance.”
Among a generous sharing of key advice on pursuing studies beyond the bachelor’s degree, several experts urged students to be sure to explore their area of interest as much as they can to get a handle on the big picture of what’s required to capture it.
They also advocate to learn as much as one can about how one’s institution’s faculty rewards system works and the so-called “holy trilogy” of research, teaching and service. Professors hoping to some day be awarded tenure have to carefully navigate those murky waters, lest they find later in their careers that the final doctoral judgment goes against them, despite their best efforts.
“You have to be cognizant of whether you have the support of your peers, department chair and dean,” says Brown, a founder of Excelencia in Education. “If not, you may be making a choice that will impact your goal to achieve tenure,” she says, noting many minorities place a higher value on service, while their institutions value research and teaching more.
Research, the ability to get published and raising outside grants to fund more research is “king,” says Brown, often leaving teaching in second place and community service in a distant third.