The Way of Leo: 5 Lessons on Academic Mentorship

Alvaro Huerta shares what he learned from a cherished mentor, who knew how to help marginalized people from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in higher education.

June 14, 2019
 
 

I have been practicing academic mentorship since I was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of California, Los Angeles (many moons ago). Once accepted into UCLA, I started to mentor high school students and my siblings in East Los Angeles to help them pursue higher education. Also, I became the campus leader of the Chicano Education Project, in which Chicana/o students at UCLA visited public schools to motivate working-class Chicana/o youth to go to college.

But I mastered the art of mentorship by learning from the late Leo Estrada, who was my own mentor, friend and colleague. (To learn more about Leo, who was an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA, please read my essay “A Call for Latinx Faculty Members.”)

Thus, I share these five lessons based mainly on what I gleaned from Leo during a 15-year period. While the focus is the academy, these lessons can apply to many other areas, such as work, sports and life.

Listen. In academe and beyond, listening is underrated and undervalued. Faculty members and others often feel too busy to invest the time to listen to their students, mentees or other people in need. But to become an effective mentor, you must learn to listen before dispensing words of wisdom or guidance.

That is what made Leo an exceptional mentor. He always made a point of listening to students, prospective students, mentees, junior faculty and others. In a calm, confident and methodical manner, he provided valuable guidance and advice.

Empathize and sympathize. Colleges and universities can be cold, impersonal and competitive spaces, and faculty members may not always go the extra mile for their students and others. It’s understandable: given the professional demands on them to survive and succeed in the academy, many faculty members, whether they admit it or not, are also struggling to get ahead or simply get by. And that’s especially the case for adjunct faculty members, an invaluable yet exploited work force.

But reaching out with warmth and empathy as a mentor can go a long way. As a Latino faculty pioneer in urban planning at an elite university, Leo had an unusual ability to empathize and sympathize with the countless students, junior faculty and others he mentored over a 40-year period. He was particularly supportive of students and faculty members of color, many of whom, myself included, were the first in their families to pursue higher education.

Be nonjudgmental. In my academic career, as I’ve studied and worked everywhere from low-performing K-12 schools to high-performing universities, I’ve occasionally had a teacher or professor who has cast negative judgments on my academic abilities. As a Chicano raised in a Mexican colonia (Colonia Libertad in Tijuana, Baja California) and an American barrio (Ramona Gardens housing project or Big Hazard projects -- named after the notorious gang -- in East Los Angeles, Alta California), I’ve witnessed and experienced abject poverty, extreme violence and, over all, a state of hopelessness. If I had heeded the limited viewpoints of those instructors, I wouldn’t have graduated from some of the best public universities in the world: UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley.

The fact is that it takes more than hard work, intelligence, diligence and willpower for marginalized people to succeed in higher education. In my case, it took the unconditional support of my mother, Carmen Mejia Montes (a Mexican immigrant with no formal education); my wife, Antonia Montes (who encouraged and supported me to pursue my graduate degrees); a professor, Juan Gómez-Quiñones (the first Chicano professor I met at UCLA from East Los Angeles, who provided me a model to emulate as an academic); and another professor and mentor, Leo (who always supported me as a graduate student and an academic). In the case of Leo, if I didn’t understand a theoretical question or research design problem during my graduate studies, instead of being judgmental, he always provided me with constructive feedback and advice.

Provide a plan of action. Too often, faculty members provide useless and destructive advice to students, especially students of color or those experiencing too many obstacles in their lives. They offer simplistic clichés, such as “Just work harder,” or “You should already be prepared for college.” It’s not enough to point out the obvious. Faculty members must show students how to succeed in higher education -- not just tell them.

Indeed, they should follow Leo’s brilliant example and work closely with students and others to create concrete plans of action that help meet their goals, such as graduating, pursuing graduate school and entering the job market. Like an outstanding surgeon, Leo had the uncanny ability to diagnosis the problem(s) a student was experiencing at the time and then provide tangible solutions and words of encouragement to help them advance.

Have their back. In Ramona Gardens or Big Hazard projects, if someone didn’t have your back, you were easy prey for the bullies, gang members and police. Since faculty members don’t usually grow up in impoverished and violent inner cities, too often, they don’t understand this basic yet profound concept or principle. While I’m not sure if Leo grew up in this type of hostile environment, he understood the importance of being willing to help those in need.

With Leo’s unwavering support, I always felt confident that I could overcome any academic obstacle, especially when challenged with the rigorous graduate-level curriculum or with obtuse faculty. Even when I migrated from UCLA to el norte (UC Berkeley) and thereafter, I made my annual pilgrimage to Leo’s office for his sage advice, support and friendship.

For having my back, helping me get ahead in the academy and being my good friend and colleague, I will always remember Leo and do my humble part to keep his legacy alive so others can benefit from it.

All this said, I’m also fully aware of the opportunity costs associated with mentorship -- that the hours that faculty members invest in mentoring students can alternatively be spent conducting research and publishing journal articles and books. So I strongly encourage colleges and universities to reward and provide incentives to faculty members like increased pay, tenure and promotion to those who help foster tomorrow’s leaders. Academe unquestionably needs more Leos.

Bio

Alvaro Huerta holds a joint faculty appointment in urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University. Among other scholarly publications, he’s the author of Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm and Defending Latina/o Immigrant Communities: The Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond, to be published this July. He holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. in urban planning and a B.A. in history from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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