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Graduate pipeline programs were created to level the playing field by providing students from historically excluded populations with the resources to be competitive in pursuing their graduate degrees. In programs such as the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, established in 1986 and as necessary today as ever, we mentor students in submission, accepting the ways higher education operates instead of demanding and creating a genuinely inclusive community. Our current practices (and the failure to call out such practices) do not honor the full humanity and experiences of our students, which makes the messages we share of their worth hypocritical.
Recently, those of us who serve as McNair Scholars directors around the nation were informed that some faculty members become frustrated when participating students don’t send a thank-you note (or email) after spending time with them. Faculty members are often gatekeepers to our scholars’ entrance and success in graduate school. The thought that something so trivial as a thank-you note could prevent one of our students from being considered for admission or funding opportunities is inexcusable and burdens our scholars with one more rule to follow.
Let me be clear: I am not against sending thank-you notes. For more than 30 years, we have told students to send thank-you notes, regardless of the fact they may have been facing significant life issues at the time. I would expect most of the scholars thanked the professors for their time when they met. I am hopeful that they responded graciously to correspondences that were sent to them from the faculty members.
However, thank-you notes should not be used as a gatekeeping tool. I always remind my scholars, when connecting with faculty and graduate representatives, “to show up and be fully present, give thanks and know that you are worth their time. If they need a thank-you note to see how much you honor their time, then maybe it is not the place that will sustain you as a scholar.”
The federally funded McNair Scholars program supports first-generation students from families within the federal low-income threshold and those from historically excluded racial and ethnic groups in graduate education. Many of these students come in without knowledge of research and lacking an understanding of graduate school and its application process. Yet they have an abundance of community cultural wealth and intellectual prowess, even graduating at the top of their classes. As McNair professionals, we ensure our scholars know the graduate school application process, inclusive of the written and unwritten rules. We meet with them regularly and, depending on budgetary constraints, supply financial support so they can attend conferences and visit their graduate programs of interest. We have done a great job of getting students into the academic spaces, but we have not challenged the systems that require the existence of programs like McNair in the first place. Instead, we have become complicit in maintaining inequitable structures: dress codes, standardized tests, hierarchical practices, etc.
Whenever I discuss this issue with colleagues, the conversation is often derailed to focus on what we need to provide or tell our scholars so they can at least be welcomed at the table. I get it. I do. Yet, when will this cycle end? At what point do our programs, as well as deans and directors of graduate programs, professors, research mentors and administrators, all stand and say, “Enough is enough”? When will we stop having workshops that examine the needs of our students while still maintaining practices that systematically exclude them?
In 2020, under my leadership, the McNair Scholars program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County adopted a new vision statement: “The UMBC McNair Scholars Program seeks to enhance the knowledge, skills and awareness of critical scholars as they navigate current structures while challenging oppressive systems within the academy.” Our mission remains the same, but we seek a strong vision of a world that will embrace our scholars and shift the responsibility of change from them—our scholars—to the institutions and society at large. Our scholars’ voices and perspectives are often ignored as they are called to bend to the scripts designed for those with more privilege and power.
What if other programs and institutions adopted such a statement, too? When will our institutions heed the call and demand more not of but for our historically excluded scholars? To do so, we must move beyond respectability politics and consider a holistic critical mentoring approach that both supports our scholars and challenges the systems that we inhabit.
Holistic critical mentoring (HCM), a framework I’ve developed, is defined as “a network of inclusive reciprocal relationships between mentees and mentors that centers the voices of and values mentees’ whole being.” It refers to “an ongoing process of learning from the mentees’ and mentors’ collective lived experiences while challenging and disrupting white supremacy and racism exhibited within the white normative interpretations of professionalism."
A few key tenets of HCM are:
- Acknowledging that race, racism and white supremacy impact mentees, mentors, programs and institutions.
- Centering the voices and experiences of the mentee.
- Supporting the holistic needs of the mentee (mental, physical, spiritual, financial, academic, career, etc.).
- Challenging white normative interpretations of professionalism.
HCM is a new paradigm of mentoring, one that holds the mentors and institutions accountable for their actions in maintaining systems that require a mentor’s help to navigate rather than creating spaces where reciprocity and vulnerability are expected from all parties.
Within the UMBC McNair Scholars program, we have adopted HCM as our approach to challenge the status quo. For example, by changing how we define professionalism, we can allow students to express gratitude in their own way. I’m a witness that when our scholars feel valued, they will express gratitude. Sometimes it is not in the manner we are accustomed to. We must still move forward, holding no animosity, knowing that we are positively impacting their journey.
My program once had a scholar who decided to go a different way instead of immediately enrolling in graduate school. If the scholar ever thanked us for everything we taught them, I don’t recall. I don’t remember whether I received a physical or electronic thank-you note. Nevertheless, the scholar shared our program with others and attended our information sessions to support those they invited. I believe this is the greatest expression of appreciation and the most sincere way they could show their gratitude.
I often discuss how the system creates additional barriers for our students. One way to change this is by asking faculty and staff mentors to stop requiring unnecessary tasks and stop penalizing students for not abiding by unwritten rules and preferences. With an increase in graduate school enrollment of students of color, we must contend with ways to enhance their graduate application process and, ultimately, their retention within the programs. This requires faculty and admission officers to be gate openers rather than gatekeepers.
Mentoring is a significant part of how we typically socialize students into higher education. Over time, mentoring has become less about developing technical skills and more about navigating the politics and unwritten policies of the academy. What if we decided we had had enough of doing this? What if we made it part of our responsibility to change the system, even as we help our scholars navigate the already rough terrain?
Here are a few practical tips from our UMBC McNair staff and graduating seniors for graduate admissions officers, faculty, staff members and institutional leaders at large:
- Be aware of unconscious bias that may impact how you interact with students and evaluate their applications.
- Set up training for mentors that covers their assigned program tasks and provides a deeper understanding of the student population’s needs.
- Take a moment to thank your students for their excellence and for allowing you to be part of their journey. Encourage their mentors to do the same.
- When faculty bring up concerns, ask them to take a moment and think about their journey as a student and mentee and develop a more empathic response and approach.
- Refrain from using cut scores, whether GPAs or standardized test scores, because you miss the richness of students’ lived experiences and how they triumphed despite the odds that may have been stacked against them.
- Better yet, dismantle the GREs.
- Create a space where students can see themselves in your community. You can’t be exclusive and expect diversity. You must be aware that how you promote your program may deter qualified students from applying.
In other words, be a gate opener, not a gatekeeper, and encourage others within your institution to be the same.
The question becomes, what can we do to change the discourse? We often focus on what our students need to do but rarely discuss what those in positions of power can do to remove the barriers. We tell our students to dress professionally, to send thank-you notes, to be early for the meetings, etc. But at what point are mentors, faculty members and even graduate school admission officers called to task to be more than gatekeepers? Swing open the gates and let our scholars walk in boldly as their authentic selves, accepted as they are: brilliant, strong, deserving, grateful.