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As I sat at my kitchen table on a recent Monday night while working on my graduate writing assignments, I thought back on all the important people who had mentored me throughout my academic journey. Years ago, when I entered my undergraduate institution as a first-generation college student of color, I felt nervous, having no prior knowledge of how to navigate campus life or which resources to use. Based on my Latina/o undergraduate colleagues’ recommendations, I developed a mentoring relationship with suitable and supportive faculty mentors. Those mentors taught me how to meet the expectations of academe, the institution and its culture.

After that, my graduate faculty mentors in my master’s program taught me how to become an effective teaching instructor, explore research topics and pursue my long-term educational aspirations. They encouraged me to pursue my doctoral program, where I have learned how to hone my academic writing skills, seek out student services and cultivate a scholarly identity in preparation for a tenure-track faculty position. These mentors scheduled time to invest in our mentoring relationship -- whether during class, office hours or a planned lunch -- and showed me how to succeed in my graduate programs.

But on that Monday night and afterward, as I have reflected on those critical in-person interactions and experiences, I’ve wondered: How can graduate students of color develop these mentoring relationships amid the pandemic?

Since March 2020, many higher education institutions have transitioned to an online learning platform, transforming -- and complicating -- how graduate students can develop or maintain such faculty-student mentoring relationships. More worrisome, the pandemic has amplified the existing barriers for graduate students, especially those from underrepresented, racially minoritized groups (Black/African American, Latina/o/x, Asian American, Native American and others) or low socioeconomic statuses. Aside from their severe underrepresentation in graduate education programs, many graduate students have experienced financial difficulties, housing insecurity, racial discrimination and low access to high-quality mental health services. Meanwhile, institutional scandals, national protests and the political climate have further disrupted the learning environment for many students across the nation.

Now, more than ever, faculty members need to be accessible and reach out to graduate students to ensure they are well supported. Professors who encourage graduate students to prioritize their mental health have fostered a sense of belonging, especially for those students still coping with the pandemic and national protests. Such relationships are essential for graduate students, especially for doctoral students learning how to navigate their programs and preparing for faculty career pathways so as to become the next wave of researchers and scholars to teach undergraduates.

Even before the pandemic and switching to an online platform, building these types of relationships was challenging, and many faculty members struggled in their efforts to support graduate students. Graduate students had access to multiple support outlets, but most involved in-person, physical interactions. Faculty members primarily held office hours to offer time to students, though some required prior appointments. Others would schedule some time before or after class for students to meet and discuss, but it could be difficult to build rapport as other students might be in a rush to ask academic questions. Alternatively, graduate students strategically attended social or professional events to engage with their professors, especially those with a tight schedule.

But the online platform has now eliminated or reduced many of the already limited opportunities graduate students have to interact with their faculty in a physical space and form mentoring relationships. How can faculty make themselves more accessible or open their virtual doors for graduate students?

As a graduate student, I can suggest six tips to those of you who are faculty members about how you might further support your graduate students during this time. You can:

  1. Develop a check-in survey at the beginning of the semester and several times after to get a scope of how students are doing and what resources they need for class.
  2. Establish a time in class to meet with students one on one to discuss course-related materials, which builds rapport. That can encourage students to feel comfortable reaching out to you more frequently.
  3. Leave the online platform (Zoom, Google Hangouts and so on) open 15 minutes before and/or after the class session so you can speak freely with students.
  4. Consider rephrasing how you refer to your office hours with a more approachable and appropriate terminology -- for example, “student hour,” “scholar hour” or the like -- to encourage more students to meet with you virtually.
  5. Move your in-person communication to a virtual or phone platform. Simple check-ins via phone calls, emails or individual Zoom meetings can still build rapport and remind your students they matter to you.
  6. Bring graduate students’ concerns to any administrative meetings you attend to give those concerns voice and help develop concrete actions to respond to them.

From a broader perspective, colleges and universities in general need to work harder to assure graduate students that they still care for and support them. To encourage faculty engagement with students, institutions and departments should also incentivize faculty members who make themselves more accessible and available for graduate students. Institutions can develop internal research grants for which faculty and graduate students apply together, fostering collaboration to receive funding on a research project. Each graduate department can also highlight and recognize nominated mentor(s) at the end of the year, perhaps with a small monetary stipend if available.

One common pushback tends to be that junior faculty are overwhelmed with multiple institutional responsibilities, teaching responsibilities and pressure to publish research, as those are the main criteria to receive a promotion. Including letters of recommendation from graduate students, for example, in the tenure and promotion evaluation process can incentivize junior faculty to engage more with their graduate students while not feeling they are losing time. This addition to the evaluation criteria can make it a more holistic review process, as it critiques their research, teaching and mentoring practices as contributions to the department and institution.

Over all, supportive and encouraging faculty-student relationships with constant communication will positively contribute to graduate students’ empowerment and academic success.

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