The World Is Changing

And as an early-career scholar, I need the academy to change with it and train us how to engage effectively with the most pressing societal challenges, writes Edgar Virgüez.

July 28, 2022
An illustration of a person holding the Earth in the palm of their hand.
(fatido/istock/getty images plus)

One of my first childhood memories is from 1992, when I completed school assignments with my sister. I don’t recall it because of my love for scholarly work but for the excitement of using candles for lighting and heating rather than electricity.

Every night for one year, my native Colombia experienced coordinated outages to prevent the collapse of the national electricity grid. Why? A periodic climatic event known as El Niño had become extreme that year, limiting the water levels of hydroelectric dams used to generate most of the country’s electricity. As I experienced the effects of climate variability on our daily lives, the memories of those cold nights stayed with me. In fact, they shaped the way I see the world.

Motivated by that vision, I studied engineering and learned of the disproportionate effect of climate change on the lives of people in developing countries. I helped formulate Bogotá’s first decennial decontamination plan for air quality, one of the city’s most pressing public health problems. And because of that experience, I’ve pursued a professional career examining paths towards decarbonized net-zero electric power systems. Like so many other people in my generation, I want to be part of the solution to climate change.

But as I learned through my work on air quality, scholars who engage with the community need a skill set, knowledge base and range of experiences that differ significantly from what traditional scholarship training provides. For instance, when I worked on developing Bogotá’s decontamination plan, the task force toured the entire city engaging with community leaders to learn from their perspectives. Their perceptions of the challenges ahead for the city as well as how they viewed the necessary solutions profoundly shaped our team’s recommended portfolio of actions. Such openness is essential for engaged scholars, who must be able to reconcile multiple perspectives from stakeholders outside academe and then formulate holistic and realistic solutions that can be implemented.

The problem: most graduate programs were designed for a time before the world and students demanded engaged scholarship. Those programs lack incentives for interdisciplinary collaboration, community engagement, conflict management or relationship building. Today’s early-career scholars need active reforms to transform graduate programs into places where we can develop into the leaders the world is desperately asking for. And among the multitude of those reforms, here’s one of the most important and yet most overlooked: we need mentorship for engaged scholars to learn how to be effective in their engagement.

The Right Mentors for Engaged Scholars

Graduate programs frequently rely on advisers to manage intellectual matters that are core to disciplinary training: methodological questions, research design techniques, teaching approaches, modes of academic writing and so on. That model excludes active participation from mentors who can provide support and guidance on much broader issues concerning career goals, intellectual style and personal wellness.

As engaged scholars, we need access to a diverse network of mentors who emphasize collaborative research and co-production of that research as standard parts of graduate training. When asking questions about our professional paths, we would benefit from receiving answers from scholars who are connected to communities outside the university—mentors who have actively engaged in implementing solutions in those communities and could provide complementary views to the ones we receive in the traditional disciplinary setting. Such mentors can teach us how to implement mitigation actions that could effectively change the lives of members of underrepresented communities.

Having engagement mentors can help us to reinforce our identities as engaged scholars. But we need to further the traditional unilateral relationship from mentors to mentees; we, in fact, need sponsors. By sponsors, I mean mentors who nominate us for awards, share recommendations on our behalf and connect us to colleagues with similar values.

Engaged scholars also need help navigating through graduate programs. Accessing mentors who effectively deal with the challenges of being engaged scholars will definitely benefit us in dealing with uncertain timelines and differing expectations of academic and nonacademic partners.

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How Engaged Mentors Are Making Scholarship Better

I greatly benefited from having an engaged scholar as one of my Ph.D. committee members—a scholar who was in constant communication with communities throughout the United States. So when she read the last chapter of my doctoral dissertation that identified locations to expand solar farms in North Carolina, she was able to remind me that quantitative models, like the one I had developed, ignored social dynamics.

We reviewed the model results and confirmed that the model identified a significant potential to expand solar farms in a county with a substantial population of underrepresented members. This county had been recently fighting social disparities driven by infrastructure expansion. Given her expertise in working with communities, we changed the interpretation of the model results and highlighted the need to complement the analysis with information about energy justice. As an engaged scholar, she taught me to improve my research by integrating a community perspective.

As I have recognized the common need for mentorship felt by all emerging engaged scholars, I have become involved in developing models of such mentorship in higher education. For example, at the university where I completed my graduate degrees, I have worked to formulate guidance for graduate programs or communities that wish to create a structure to support peer-to-peer mentoring for doctoral students. I am also part of the Beyond the Academy Network, a coalition of university leaders seeking to promote actionable, engaged scholarship on sustainability. As part of that effort, the network has recently launched a guidebook describing a comprehensive model of scholarship that builds an institutionwide culture of engagement (including mentorship for engaged scholars).

As early-career scholars, we are now part of an ecosystem of individuals who want to transform our communities and promote positive societal disruptions, expanding the frontiers of knowledge and ensuring that it serves not just the advancement of a discipline but also helps resolve the most pressing societal challenges.

My invitation for university presidents, provosts and senior leaders in the higher education sector is to advance the reforms we need to become engaged scholars—starting with supporting mentorship for engagement. As an early-career scientist studying the transition to decarbonized economies, I have seen how the world is changing. As an early-career engaged scholar, I need the academy to change with it.

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Edgar Virgüez is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s department of global ecology at Stanford University.

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