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Most of us probably recall a mentoring relationship that stood out to us. For some, it’s because that relationship was vital to our academic and personal development. For others, it’s because our mentors did not give us what we needed.

Regardless of whether you recall positive or negative experiences with mentors—or both—it’s very likely that explicit conversations around your mentor’s expectations and the mentor-mentee relationship weren’t the norm. Either you had a good mentor who just got you or … you didn’t. And if you were a mentee who didn’t have the kind of relationship you wanted with your mentor, it was probably hard to ask for what you needed.

Many of us are now on the other side of the mentor-mentee relationship and want to be good mentors. One way or another, we have learned how to judge what qualifies as good mentorship from the memorable mentors we’ve had. But wanting to be a good mentor and being a good mentor are two different things.

Part of why being a good mentor is so tricky is because of long-standing norms around the mentor-mentee relationship. Fundamentally, institutions just expect mentoring to work. With this underlying expectation for mentoring to be positive, academic spaces don’t often give mentees the opportunity to reflect on—much less communicate—wants and needs for mentor-mentee relationships. And the mentor often doesn’t receive any explicit guidance on how to facilitate productive conversations with mentees about their needs and expectations—much less navigate the inherent power dynamics that come along with the mentor being positioned as the knowledge holder in the relationship.

Power dynamics between mentors and mentees manifest both through those positional roles and in terms of the individuals involved in mentoring. Unfortunately, discrimination still occurs regularly in higher education. Researchers who interviewed 6,500 faculty members found that women and racially minoritized students who contact professors for help and advice were less likely to get positive responses, or any responses, from them.

High-quality, equity-minded mentoring that honors mentors’ and mentees’ social identities can be one way to change the culture of exclusionary academic fields. As Kimberly Griffin, an expert on equity-minded mentoring, notes, “Missing how identity and the norms and structures of academic institutions shape all aspects of our mentoring relationships makes them less effective; we can’t fully realize the impact of mentorship without acknowledging how who we are and where we are in an organization shape not only our access to mentorship but also our needs and expectations.”

Engaging in equity-minded mentoring can help ensure that both mentors and mentees realize the full benefits of our relationships. But how do we even begin to be an equity-minded mentor?

Having explicit conversations about our needs and expectations is a good starting point. Below, we offer key tips that can help both faculty mentors and student mentees be more equity-minded in their relationships.

  • Start with thinking critically about the overlap between your social identities and institutional structures. Understanding your and your mentor’s or mentee’s personal context, background and values can help you identify potential alignment across social identities and/or positions in your institutional setting. For example, mentoring relationships benefit from explicit conversations about each person’s racial or cultural background, personal hobbies, core values, and how their social identities or communities influence their vision for success in higher education. Mentoring relationships can also grow stronger through mentors’ and mentees’ transparent discussions about the institutional policies and expectations that shape their positions, as such dynamics vary widely across faculty and student roles.
  • Reflect on who else comprises your support and mentoring networks as a mentor or mentee. Recognize that the variety of people and support in mentoring relationships can create a foundation of partnership through each person’s strengths.
  • Examine where your knowledge comes from. How you understand the roots of your interests and motivations for academic engagement inform your mentoring expectations. One way to actualize a conversation about the origins of mentors’ and mentees’ knowledge is to gather information about what types of questions pique the curiosity of each of you, who or what may have left each of you feeling inspired most recently, or the overarching purpose of each of your intellectual work. By learning about the forming of intellectual interests and continuing motivations, mentors and mentees can also generate authentic ways to support each other in realizing these goals.
  • Consider using a formal tool like student-adviser expectation scales or a mentoring agreement or compact. Aligning expectations for mentoring relationships between mentors and mentees, and then formalizing those expectations in writing and discussing them, can mitigate dissatisfaction in communication and other taken-for-granted aspects of mentoring involvement.
  • Anticipate the changing seasons of mentorship and how mentor-mentee dynamics may flow and evolve through stages or phases. Creating a mentoring road map that addresses how power and identity shape the progression of mentorship can be crucial in outlining how mentors and mentees can reflect, establish, maintain and move forward in their relationships. For example, as mentoring relationships begin, mentors and mentees would do well to reflect on what they need or desire from the relationship and why. Moreover, this initial stage should also include self-reflection on how each or your needs or goals in a mentoring relationship may be influenced by the social identities or the power you do or do not hold in your institutional setting. Only then can mentoring relationships be cultivated and continually adapted in ways that holistically honor mentors’ and mentees’ experiences.
  • Hold regular “equity checks” about mentoring relationships at least once a year. Sustaining regular time for reflection and accountability can ensure both mentors’ and mentees’ needs are met with trust, care and respect. Given that mentors’ and mentees’ needs are likely to evolve in the relationship, it is crucial to set up these checkpoints as one way to ensure a true partnership. It may be helpful to use a rubric in these equity checks, as you can then reflect on the extent to which you as a mentor or mentee are thoughtful about implicit bias, mindful of how identity-based privileges shape your relationship, aware of the distinct strengths each of you contribute to the relationship and generative in providing constructive feedback with care.

These are some of the key lessons that have emerged from the Equity-Minded Mentoring tool kit that one of us, Annie, developed along with Adrianna Burton, Kimberly Dennin and Reginald T. Gardner. That tool kit includes six activities to help mentors understand equity-minded mentoring, align their expectations with those of their mentees and renegotiate mentoring engagement in changing seasons of life. As Gardner put it, “We provide a road map that helps mentors structure guidance, allowing them to focus on impactful discussions and share their knowledge and experience.”

That said, the Equity-Minded Mentoring tool kit isn’t just for mentors—it was designed with mentees in mind as well. Dennin noted, “In a system that offers little structure to mentors/mentees, this tool kit also provides a guide for graduate students to build one of the most important relationships during their time in graduate school. Its flexibility allows mentors to adapt it to their mentoring style and for students to adapt it to their ever-evolving relationship with their mentor.” While Dennin refers specifically to the utility of the tool kit for graduate student mentees, undergraduate student mentees who have faculty or graduate student mentors could also find this tool kit valuable.

Each mentoring relationship is distinct and ever-evolving. Maintaining equity-minded mentoring relationships takes time and commitment from everyone involved. But we hope our advice and resources like the Equity-Minded Mentoring tool kit will help people in colleges and universities around the country in their continual efforts to be good mentors. Ultimately, such tips and resources can be beneficial not only for individual mentoring relationships but also the creation of academic cultures that explicitly provide organizational support for the intentionality that good mentoring requires.

Kristyn Lue (she/her/hers) is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Southern California and project coordinator of the Inclusive Graduate Education Network (IGEN) Resource Hub. Annie M. Wofford (she/her/hers) is an assistant professor of higher education at Florida State University and a senior research associate at the Center for Postsecondary Success.

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