Mentoring Education Graduate Students of Color

Mariela A. Rodríguez, Ph.D. is currently a Professor and Interim Department Chair in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She earned her Ph.D. in Educational Administration from New Mexico State University on a Kellogg Fellowship. She is a Past-President of the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA). She is currently the Vice President-Elect of Division A of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Her research interests focus on school leadership that supports additive bilingual education programs, specifically dual language instruction. Dr. Rodríguez has co-authored articles in the Journal of School Leadership, the International Journal of Leadership in Education, and the Journal of Equity & Excellence in Education. Her most recent co-authored book, Immigrant Faculty in the Academy: Narratives of Identity, Resilience, and Action was published by Routledge earlier this fall.

I started out my career as a bilingual elementary school teacher in my hometown of Brownsville, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley along the U.S.-Mexico border. I loved school and teaching, so I decided to pursue a master’s degree at University of Texas at Brownsville to become a reading specialist. I simultaneously began another master’s degree in School Administration at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, with the goal of one day becoming a principal or school superintendent. During my graduate studies, I met faculty members who peaked my interest in academia, such as Dr. Paula Parson who became an instrumental mentor in my career. 

After I started working as a reading specialist with Northside ISD in San Antonio, Dr. Parson sent me a Kellogg fellowship application to earn a Ph.D. in Educational Administration at New Mexico State University through the Hispanic Border Leadership Institute. I completed the exhaustive application and was invited for an interview and subsequently selected for the fellowship. 

During my doctoral studies at New Mexico State, I worked as a teaching assistant and taught large undergraduate classes for pre-service teachers. It was a wonderful experience and it made me realize that I really enjoyed higher education. That is where my research avenue began and I decided to remain in academia. At New Mexico State, Dr. Malu Gonzalez (read more about her work in a past blog) served as a formative mentor who has been highly supportive of my decisions and steered me in the right direction. Her mentorship, along with that of Dr. Parson–both women of color–has been one of the keys to my professional success in academia. I have learned that it is important to build trusting and respectful mentorship relationships, to get to know each other, and learn what makes the other person tick. I have had nourishing friendships with them and they have offered me essential career advice. We have worked hard to maintain that relationship over the years. Paula gave me the name plaque that rests on my desk, and Malu recently attended a ceremony where I was recognized as a 2020 Distinguished Alumni from NMSU.  

Currently I am a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), where I teach students in our Ph.D. program in Educational Leadership who focus on K-12 education. I keep all that I have learned in mind for how I approach my mentorships in my current position. For example, we have a formal mentorship program for new faculty members. Over the past few years, I have mentored two assistant professors, who are both women of color. We are still growing into that relationship of trust and vulnerability. This year has been difficult because I have not been able to see them in person and connect in the same way. While faculty members have questions about tenure, promotions, teaching and research, students have different needs from a mentorship. They often come to me for advice about classes and their career advice, but also for personal advice sometimes. Their questions can differ often, and this year has brought on whole new challenges for them. 

My research on mentorship came to life while working with my doctoral students. This December I will hood my 42nd doctoral student, and the students have all overcome different challenges during the program. Some students were leading their own school while fulfilling our requirements, and our institution is currently looking at ways it can improve its support of busy students. I have also seen the need for students–especially students of color–to have strong support networks and to feel that they are heard by their mentors.

Through this research and my personal experiences, I have learned two main points regarding the mentorship of students of color. First of all, it is essential to build community with students. Students need to see mentors as family. We spend as much time with them during their graduate program as they spend with their own families. We need to offer stability and reliability to students. With undergraduates, it is usually about socializing them to understand the purpose of office hours. With graduate students, it is not as simple. They know about office hours, but do not know what to ask or are afraid to ask, especially with regards to dissertation research. We need to make ourselves available and create comfort and stability.

Second of all, we need to tweak how we view research and design. It is important to support students ingearing their research towards their school setting or something that will support them in the future. The research should not serve just to tick off a box for their Ph.D. It could be something practical like a curriculum redesign at their school. All of our students will not become faculty members so it is important that they also engage in research that will benefit their community.

I recently served as a guest editor on a special edition of the Journal of Transformative Leadership and Policy Studies at Sacramento State about Mentoring Doctoral Studies of Color.  It was my first time doing a guest editorship and I was excited to work with the journal’s team to bring together a great group of people. We divided the edition into four sections: Empirical and Conceptual Studies, Reflective Essays, Policy Brief, and Book Reviews. I invited one of my doctoral students to do a book review, which was her first publication. It was a great learning process for me and I got to connect with others doing work on the mentorship of doctoral students specifically. Here is a video we created about the edition of the journal. 

We thank Dr. Rodríguez for sharing some of her story and mentorship journey with us. If you are interested in learning more about leadership and mentorship please visit her ResearchGate page here. 

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