The Science of Mentoring

Sibyl Kaufman
April 16, 2015

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

If caring is the topsoil of mentorship, Richard Reddick has devoted his career to mining the subsurface for what it really takes to support minority students. One layer at a time, he continues to explore how the landscape of academia is influenced by impactful relationships between learners and the learned. To start, he had to pinpoint what makes those relationships unique.

A Student Returns to Teach

Though he excelled in high school and is now an award-winning researcher, Professor Richard Reddick once struggled as a freshman at UT Austin. “I was a high-achieving student in an urban, high minority, high-poverty school in Austin, and a first-generation collegian,” Reddick explains. “The experience was at once fascinating, enthralling, and closed. I felt like I was at a cocktail party wearing the wrong clothes.”

Used to a diverse, working-class community, Reddick felt isolated on a campus of majority white, affluent students. Unspoken rules began to emerge, and as a young Black man, Reddick began to be aware of what he now identifies as a “hidden curriculum.” To respect a teacher meant avoiding confrontation, but participation in college lectures required students to defend their arguments. Which was the right choice? Similar questions began adding up.

By chance, Reddick stumbled upon what he calls a “homeplace”: the Office of the Dean of Students. There, he met confident and successful students of color and academic leaders such as Brenda Burt, Sharon Justice, and Jim Vick, who valued his contributions. As he became more involved with the group, Reddick saw his confidence and his grades start to rise.

As if to test this newfound assurance, Reddick missed an important lecture in a seminar on civil rights law. The professor, Dr. Ricardo Romo, happened to be a university administrator with an office in the main building on campus. Reddick decided to step outside his comfort zone and visit Dr. Romo one-on-one.

The elite professor welcomed young Reddick immediately. It was the start of an impactful, long-term mentoring relationship. “He asked me about my life and where I came from, and we discovered we had a lot in common,” says Reddick. Soon, the two men were swapping stories about their shared experiences as student leaders of color. Later, Reddick attended a barbeque at Dr. Romo’s house. Plunged into the electric discourse and debate of chattering graduate students, Reddick felt at once at ease and inspired. “I looked at Dr. Romo and thought, ‘Maybe I can do that one day.’ It was probably such an insignificant day to him, but it was huge for me.” 

The impact of mentorship continues to drive Professor Reddick. His work has garnered widespread acclaim as evidenced by alumni achievement awards from both the Harvard Graduate School of Education  and The University of Texas. His focus includes insightful explorations into psychosocial theoriesbest practices, and practical methods for cultivating meaningful, caring relationships – especially those between university faculty and students of color.

Defining Mentorship

To a person on the street, mentorship may at first seem like a straightforward concept. Reddick disagrees. “Mentoring isn’t just the one-on-one dyad that we see in popular culture,” he urges. The more precise definition is that mentorship is a close relationship in which a more experienced person serves as a “guide, role model, teacher, and sponsor” of someone less experienced.

“Mentoring is being invested in someone else’s development and success in a meaningful way,” says Reddick, who describes two components of mentoring. “There is career and there is psychosocial advising, but they both have to be used in combination to create mentorship.”

Because, as Reddick’s research has revealed, shared knowledge about best practices in the workplace or in school may fall on deaf ears if an adviser is unaware of major influences in a young person’s life. “I can give advice to anybody, but without knowing the meaningful pieces of that person’s experience, it’s hard to make the advice meaningful as well.”

The disconnect between psychosocial and career aspects of mentoring happens with some regularity in academia. “But,” Reddick points out, “good mentors are never so distant from their experiences that they forget what it was like to be in the spot of their mentee.

Employing professional guidance with a healthy dose of empathy is a critical combination in mentorship. Just as critical is reciprocity.  Reddick’s research has identified that open communication between both parties is a necessity. “It’s not just one person dumping all this knowledge out of a bucket,” he says. “It’s a back and forth.  Both parties have to be honest, and feel safe telling each other what they really think or feel.”

Benefits for Both

Traditional beliefs about mentorship tend to focus on the experience of the mentee. Life-changing takeaways and course-altering encounters are benefits that dominate discussions, but they often revolve around receiving, rather than giving, guidance.

In a 2011 study, Reddick and two of his colleagues, Dr. Kimberly Griffin and Dr. Richard Cherwitz, describe new findings that prove the positive influence the act of mentoring has on a mentor. Their study, “Answering President Obama’s Call for Mentoring: It’s Not Just for Mentees Anymore,” analyzed a pool of mentor reflections, coded those narratives, and developed themes based on recurring ideas within those narratives.

The study found that mentors tended to describe their relationships as being comprised of four benefits, including a deeper understanding of both themselves and their academic discipline, opportunities to develop advising and mentoring skills necessary for success in their future careers, and a heightened awareness of the reciprocal nature of developmental relationships.

By being exposed to the rewards of mentoring, the research suggests that those people are socialized to use their capabilities for the good of others. In other words, when someone “pays it forward”, he or she experiences such positive emotions that they are inspired to repeat the experience.

The fourth benefit uncovered by the study related to the fact that those mentors interviewed were graduate students working with undergrads interested in pursuing graduate school in a similar field. Mentors felt that they could contribute to the diversity of their field by mentoring a scholar from an underrepresented population. Which raises questions about the disproportionality of students versus professors of color.

This disparity directly affected Reddick as a student and continues to motivate his research today. His work has shown that, while there is definitive need to increase the number of professors of color in academia, an integral part of achieving that increase is for White professors to share the responsibility of intentionally mentoring minority students.

Cross-race Mentoring

In their paper in press at the Journal of the Professoriate, “’I Don’t Want to Work in a World of Whiteness’: White Faculty and Their Developmental Relationships with Black Students,” Reddick and co-author Dr. Katie Pritchett tackle the problem of recruiting Black scholars into the pedagogical echelons of higher education. Hurdles include the fact that students simply aren’t exposed to many Black or minority professors. “It helps to see people in positions that you aspire to,” explains Reddick. “One of the most impactful things for me as a student at UT and at Harvard was learning from professors of color.”

One may jump to placing all the onus of role modeling and mentorship on minority professors. After all, if young people of color need examples of success, shouldn’t it be up to those who’ve “made it?” Reddick’s research proves that is not only an unrealistic approach – it can be downright harmful.

The pressure to go above and beyond weighs heavily on professors of color who are often called upon to bridge the gap between a majority White faculty roster and a school’s minority student population. This “cultural taxation” can be exhausting and, in the end, is an unrealistic and unfair expectation. As A World of Whiteness shows, it is imperative for White faculty to realize and embrace their potential as effective mentors for minority students.

A similar realization is critical for students. “Anyone with an identity outside of the majority – you’re not going to easily find people who think exactly like you or share your identity,” Reddick states bluntly. “You have to say, ‘Okay, I have to find people who can help me get to where I’m going and from whom I can learn.’ And remember, those people will not always think congruently to you. That’s hard.”

A congruence of how a mentor and mentee approach racial issues and identity is critical to the success of cross-racial mentoring. “If you have two people who are race-avoidant,” Reddick explains, “they’re going to get along fine. The same goes for two people who are race-conscious. It’s when you have a mismatch – when one person is candid about issues of racial identity but the other person is not – that trust breaks down.”

The conclusion of Reddick and Pritchett’s study underlines exactly how White faculty can find common ground with Black students. By drawing on their own histories for experiences of discrimination or feelings of “otherness,” White mentors can “create an empathetic frame of reference to better understand microaggressons and marginalization.” While those experiences cannot be presumed to be equivalent to those of minority students, they still serve to afford White faculty a healthy perspective.

Similarly, the study shows that effective White faculty mentors “formed identities that involved knowledge and education of issues pertaining to social justice,” meaning they were primed to be receptive to topics sensitive to minority populations. And, as is true for anyone considering their qualifications as a strong mentor, “White faculty need not assume that their own lives and experiences fail to provide a strong foundation of mentoring wisdom across race.”

“A good mentor will know their strengths and limitations,” Reddick explains. “A lot of mentoring is empathy, and showing that you’ve been to hard places and that you want someone to know more than you did.”

In the end, there is no evidence to suggest that differences in race, gender, or any other identity are definitive predictors of mentoring success. What Reddick and other researchers have proven is that the most important element of mentoring is intent.