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Mentoring, Texas-Style

September 29, 2009

Before Justin Jefferson got to college, the only kinds of doctors he or his parents had ever heard of were physicians and preachers. Not many researchers and teachers with doctorates live amid the gunshots of east San Antonio’s housing projects, the only world that he and his parents -- both manual laborers -- knew.

He arrived at the University of Texas at Austin a biology major, hoping to fulfill pre-med requirements, go on to medical school and become a physician, working toward a career goal his family could understand and respect. It was also the only career trajectory he knew of that would allow him to pursue his love of the natural sciences.

But, in the fall of 2007, during his sophomore year, Jefferson noticed a flier for the Pre-Graduate School Internship, a program created in 2004 to help undergraduates figure out their academic and career goals by pairing them with graduate students or faculty members. Though he didn’t really know what the program was, he signed up anyway and was paired with Deena Walker, a neuroscience graduate student in UT’s College of Pharmacy.

When they met, Walker says, Jefferson “didn’t think there was anything he could do with an interest in science other than becoming a medical doctor.” Now, though, after two years of working in Walker’s lab, studying how the brain controls reproductive physiology, “he really likes research and is seriously considering a career that includes research in some way,” she says.

Richard A. Cherwitz, founder and director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium that runs the program, says Jefferson’s experience isn’t uncommon. “Students come to us not knowing the options available to them. They may know a few options like med school or law school, but they are often unfamiliar with research and the academy.”

Cherwitz is working to raise $50 million to establish an endowment for the consortium as part of UT’s $2 billion capital campaign. Though the program received about $165,000 in funding in 2007, it’s getting just $90,000 this year from UT’s undergraduate colleges and the office of the vice president for diversity and community engagement. He uses that money to pay a graduate student to support him in administering the internship program and to provide stipends for a quarter of the program’s mentors.

Enrollment in the program, which students can use to earn one, two or three credit hours per semester, is open to all undergraduates. More than 700 students have gone through the program over the last five years, and another 140 are enrolled this fall.

Half of students who complete the program and graduate from UT go on to graduate school, which was just what Cherwitz hoped for. Former associate dean of UT’s graduate school, he says he hoped to “increase the applicant pool to grad programs by developing initiatives for undergraduates."

Though it was never his expressed intention to attract underrepresented minorities or first generation college students specifically, Cherwitz says “it’s really not a surprise” that, from semester to semester, about 50 percent of the students who enroll in the internship program fit those categories. “They don’t know the rules of the game, the politics of the academy,” he says. “It gives them ways to integrate what they’re thinking about in terms of academics, careers and serving their communities, all with the help of someone who has gone through the same kinds of experiences.”

Gregory J. Vincent, vice president for diversity and community engagement, says he thinks the internship program's "emphasis on giving back to communities, of figuring out ways to make your work matter, is what attracts first generation students and underrepresented minorities."

He adds: "It's hard to know whether if we had designed a diversity initiative it would work as well as this program has. This is getting hundreds of students to graduate school who might not have gone. There aren't many programs out there like this, expanding the number of students of all kinds who are applying to grad school."

Mentors and Mentees

When Jessica Kemp arrived at UT, she joined Student Leaders Pursuing Law, a pre-law group aimed at bringing diversity to the profession. She “hadn’t definitely decided to go to law school” when she joined the organization but was strongly considering it. Though her parents were “always here to support me,” she says, “they weren’t really there to provide me with information” when it came to educational and career plans. When the IE internship program approached the group offering current law students as mentors, Kemp jumped at the chance to develop a personal relationship with someone who knew the ins and outs of applying to law school and being a law student.

As she got to know her mentor and the law school at UT, Kemp says she realized she “really wanted to go to law school and really wanted to become a lawyer.” She took an LSAT preparation class and scored well on the exam.

When it came time to apply to law school, she sat in on her mentor’s classes and attended law school events to figure out whether she wanted to go to UT’s law school. “I had this top-ranked law school right here,” she says, “so I had to see if it was the right place for me; I decided it was.”

Kemp is in her third year there and now mentors pre-law undergraduates and works part time as an assistant director for the internship program, matching students with mentors. “I’m able to see things from their perspective,” she says. “I know what it’s like to be going through the process. I tell my students all the things my mentor told me -- what they should be doing, how best to prepare for the LSAT -- and all the things I’ve learned on my own that I wish someone else would’ve told me."

She’s looking ahead to a legal career in which she can advocate for educational or health care issues. Whether in her job or through volunteer work, she says, she wants to “continue helping minority students, first generation college students figure out if law school is what they want to do,” she says. “I want people to be cognizant of the fact we need more minorities to attend law school and practice law so that there are lawyers out there who can represent the people they’re serving.”

Devin Ruthstrom, who this fall began a master’s program in interpersonal communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was paired up with Gary Beck, a graduate student in communication studies.

Ruthstrom says he had “thrown around the idea of grad school in my mind but had no idea what it really meant.” His parents had gone to an unaccredited three-year bible college and “weren’t really able to inform me first, about college in general and second, about graduate school.” But Beck could show him what it was like to be a graduate student and help him figure out whether it was the right direction for him.

Together, they worked on a literature review, attended the National Communication Association’s 2008 convention in San Diego, and visited several graduate-level communications classes at UT and elsewhere. “My mentor gave me a better view of what graduate student life was like over all,” Ruthstrom says. “The biggest question I wanted to answer was if graduate school was something I wanted to do and I found it was.”

Starting Early

Daniel Conroy-Beam graduated from San Antonio’s Health Careers High School in the spring of 2008 and started classes at UT that summer, determined to fulfill pre-med requirements and go on to medical school. Though he knew other options were out there -- his father has a master’s degree and his mother is working on a Ph.D. -- medicine seemed right. Then, he says, “I completely lucked into a field that I absolutely love.”

He signed up for Introduction to Psychology on a whim, looking for an extra three credit hours to round out the semester. He found himself fascinated by the subject area and developed a connection with David M. Lewis, an evolutionary psychology graduate student teaching the course. After a successful semester in the class, Lewis asked Conroy-Beam to work with him and together they found the credit-granting IE internship program.

“This mentorship thing has cemented my interest in evolutionary psychology,” Conroy-Beam says. “My mentor’s not just a guy I work for, he’s a guy I work with, learn from, get to help.” Getting to see Lewis’s life as a graduate student has “led to me deciding I definitely want to go to graduate school,” the undergraduate says. “I know I want to study this subject, to do research in it and to eventually find a professorship somewhere.”

Because he was a freshman, Conroy-Beam didn’t have much difficulty in switching his major, from a pre-med subject area to, briefly, rhetoric to, now, psychology.

It’s the kind of flexibility and unexpected focus and passion Cherwitz wants to be able to give to more freshmen and sophomores than just those few who find the Pre-Graduate School Internship.

He’s applying for grants to create the IE Academic-Community Mentorship Program, which would match first and second semester freshmen with graduate student mentors and community liaisons -- people in the Austin area working in the public and private sectors. He wants to help these students, many in their late teens, “figure out what they want to do with their lives,” he says. “They’ll be able to create entrepreneurial plans for their futures, with a plan, a backup plan and so on, for their academic and non-academic futures.”

 

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