Earlier today I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a 2nd year PhD History student at The Graduate Center in New York. I’ve known OF Aidah for years because we went to undergrad together but we weren’t friends in college (we were in different social circles). Over the last year however, we’ve become friends because frankly, we need each other. Whether it’s to vent, to support, to seek advice, or to laugh, we find solace in knowing that someone else shares our feelings and thoughts, and we have another person from whom to seek advice. Aidah has become a member of my support network, and I hope I’ve become a member of hers. But what is more is that Aidah is something else to me: she is also a mentor.
Now, you may be thinking ‘how can she be a mentor when she’s a 2nd year student and you are a 2nd year faculty member?’ But it’s that kind of thinking we have to reframe. Especially we scholars of color who may not possess the navigational capital to succeed in academia.
Let’s start with the idea of mentorship. I said Aidah has become a mentor of mine. What does that even mean? It means I believe Aidah has personal and professional knowledge that if shared, better equips me to be successful in my career and life in general. Aidah is someone who can provide genuine emotional support because she understands my experiences and my perspective. It is important to note that she doesn’t necessarily share my experiences or perspective, but she understands and respects them. That is what a mentor does: he/she listens, contextualizes, and offers relevant feedback. Aidah is not at a small private liberal arts college, but she is a woman of color in a predominantly white field. She does not live where I live, research what I study, or even have the same professional goals. But what I like about her mentorship is that it comes from a place of difference, and is centered around intersections. Her different perspective forces me to think critically about my perspectives and my choices. She is not blindly cosigning on everything I say; no, she is providing personal advice guided by her own schemata of professional success. In essence, as a mentor, she pushes me to consider previously unconsidered variables as I make decisions about my career.
What Aidah is not, is an advocate. This is not because she doesn’t believe in me or think I will succeed. This is because she is not in a position to be my advocate. An advocate, unlike a mentor, does not need to understand your perspective. He/she does not need to listen, contextualize, or offer relevant feedback in your time of need. In fact, an advocate doesn’t even need to care about your emotions. What they need to care about is your career. An advocate is someone who sees the value not of you as a person, but of your contributions to the field and to the university/college at which you work. This is a person who may not even know your last name, the courses you teach, or where your department is on campus. He/she may not have even spoken to you often, but they are aware of your accomplishments. Advocates, unlike mentors, can not be just anyone with whom you get along well. Advocates should be people in power who are well-respected in your field and/or at your institution. This is the person who will ‘go to bat’ for you when it comes down to it. This is the person, who in a meeting about your tenure or promotion or contract renewal will stand against the majority and speak on your behalf. This is the person who upon observing a senior faculty member be less than respectful to you, will speak up and shut it down. This is a person who truly believes in your future success and is willing to invest in you. Just as important a mentor is to your emotional well-being, an advocate is to your professional well-being.
So here is the secret: the same way you cultivate personal relationships, you need to cultivate professional ones. While you can seek out a mentor in the Academy (most people choose those with whom they have some kind of connection), you need to recognize you can’t find an advocate. They find you. They find you when you present your research at faculty luncheons/meetings. They find you when you contribute good ideas in committee meetings. They find you when they see your name attached to an advertisement for a campus event or to a great publication. They find you when they hear their students talking about how great your class was. They find you when you put yourself out there to be found.
And that is my message for young scholars of color. So often we’ve been raised in environments where you ‘figure it out’ and ‘get it done’ and sometimes, can’t count on others to help. Those of us who may have been the ‘only’ might have felt that you had no one to whom to turn in times of need, so you got used to doing it alone. We may not have attended schools where you needed to have an advocate because there was such a strong sense of communal support. For whatever reasons, scholars of color are hesitant to ask for help.
But the reality is, Academia is not a place in which you can succeed on your own. It may be 2013, but nepotism is alive and well and the Academy is still very reminiscent of the Good Ole Boys club. It would behoove you, me, Aidah, and every scholar hoping to be successful in higher education to be open to new relationships, both personal and professional. You worked so hard to get into your career. Display that same work ethic to stay in your career.