Black and Brown Students Want Black and Brown Mentors. What’s a Primarily White Institution to Do?

S. Brooke Vick from Muhlenberg College shares three ways mentoring efforts can support students of color.

November 10, 2021
Robin Riley-Casey, associate dean of students and diversity initiatives and co-director of the Emerging Leaders Program at Muhlenberg College, shares a laugh with students Matthew J. McCray and Dynasty Adams, an Emerging Leader (left to right).
(Bill Keller/Muhlenberg College)

The recent Student Voice survey on mentors from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse confirmed what we already suspected: students of color often prefer a mentor with the same racial identity.

Fifty-six percent of the Black undergraduates surveyed stated a preference for a mentor with the same racial identity, as did 21 percent of Asian students and 20 percent of Latinx students, according to the survey of 2,000 sophomores, juniors and seniors, which is presented with support from Kaplan.

This preference can present a profound challenge for primarily white institutions striving for a powerful mentorship program for students of color.

At Muhlenberg College, where I am associate provost for faculty and diversity initiatives, we’ve found that an institutionwide commitment is a must. To avoid taxing the already overburdened faculty and staff of color, the effort must be shared by many across campus. Roughly half of the faculty and staff mentors in our mentoring program for students of color identify as white.

The Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) invites students from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic communities who have demonstrated leadership potential in high school to join a community that supports their intellectual, social and professional development. Our model is that of a scholars program, with the benefits of both community building and wraparound mentoring for academic and interpersonal success.

The ELP, which began in 2011, tackles this numbers imbalance in three primary ways: a high mentor-to-mentee ratio, early and ongoing community building, and supported and rewarded mentors.

1. Three Mentors for Every Student

Mentoring relationships cannot be forced. Multiple mentors increase the chance that a meaningful connection between mentor and mentee will be forged. This model also helps students understand the importance of cultivating a network of mentors on campus from the very beginning, rather than developing the expectation that any one mentor can effectively serve all of their needs.

The ELP leadership team meets with mentors regularly, to share success stories, brainstorm ways to offer more assistance and check in on how students are doing. Each mentor has a role:

  • Peer mentors are academically successful second-year ELP students with good social connections who help the incoming students navigate campus life and academic routines and provide the inside scoop on engaging professors and classes.
  • Selected from across campus, staff mentors are particularly skilled at helping demystify college life for emerging leaders (ELs)—something especially critical for first-generation students. Staff mentors can help ELs find important resources, such as the tutoring or career centers, or get help with financial emergencies. They also provide a safe space to discuss social or family concerns that might be difficult to raise with a faculty adviser.
  • Faculty can choose to teach ELP-dedicated first-year seminars in the college’s first-year experience program. These faculty mentors also serve as the student’s primary academic adviser until they declare a major, helping ELs choose classes and majors, develop productive note-taking or study skills, and make sure progress is being made toward a degree.

2. Community Building and Insider Secrets

Pre-orientation week activities for first-year ELs begin on day one and set the tone for what they will experience over the next two years of the program.

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Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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Following move-in and a first on-campus dinner, we offer academic enrichment opportunities to connect with faculty outside of the classroom, academic resource and peer-to-peer workshops, leadership development and community-building activities. Recognizing that many of our students are also first-generation students, my keynote on opening night aims to demystify aspects of the hidden curriculum that Anthony Jack discusses in his book The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Harvard University Press).

The most important message: college is not the time for rugged individualism. College is challenging for everyone, and going it alone makes things harder. Collaborating with peers, taking advantage of resources and connecting regularly with mentors all contribute to higher ed success.

3. Mentor Support and Rewards

As a primarily white institution, we cannot promise that every Black or brown student will have a Black or brown ELP faculty or staff mentor. But we can promise to make sure those selected are highly culturally aware and have been offered support and training to address issues that arise surrounding race and identity.

We select faculty who are invested in the work of teaching inclusively and faculty and staff who are invested in equity and justice. We offer assistance in developing inclusive syllabi, where students of color can see themselves reflected in the content, as well as workshops addressing best practices for inclusive and antiracist approaches on campus and in the classroom.

Visit the Student Voice news hub for analysis of results from other surveys of college undergraduates.

Faculty teach an ELP first-year seminar as a part of their teaching load but are provided a $500 grant to develop their course. Staff receive a small stipend each semester for their additional time commitment. Faculty and staff mentors can also access program funds to share meals with their mentees, to bring in speakers or charter a bus to offer academic enrichment programs or field trips. Recent events included a conversation with a group of young faculty about overcoming obstacles and succeeding in STEM fields and a tour of a coffee roastery to learn about sustainable and equitable practices for justice in the industry.

Through years of development, the program is now in the fortunate position of having more faculty and staff interested in being involved than we can accommodate. The students enrolled in our ELP are writers, artists, athletes, activists and scholars. They are incredibly talented, academically curious and community engaged, often stepping into visible positions of leadership on our campus. In fact, our current student government president is a proud EL.

Moreover, there is good evidence that the program is making a difference, as four-year graduation rates for ELs are consistently five to six percentage points higher than those of our general student population. With the support of the ELP, these students of color are more than simply navigating our predominantly white institution successfully—they are making a positive impact in all corners of our community.

Read more coverage of the Student Voice mentors survey.

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S. Brooke Vick is associate provost for faculty and diversity initiatives and associate professor of psychology, as well as co-director of the Emerging Leaders Program, at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

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