Mentoring and Retention of Under-represented, Minoritized Students in the Graduate College

Submitted on October 12, 2020
Dr. Sonja Lanehart

By Dr. Sonja Lanehart


I was hired in Fall 2019 as a Professor of Linguistics in the College of Social and Behavioral Science (SBS); Professor of Teaching, Learning & Sociocultural Studies (TLS) in the College of Education; and a Faculty Fellow in the Graduate College for Retention and Mentoring of Under-represented, Minoritized Students (URMS). I spent 2019-2021 gathering data about the University of Arizona (UArizona) context by meeting with graduate students, faculty, and staff; attending webinars related to my Faculty Fellow assignment; participating in the bi-weekly Graduate College Team Management meetings; reading research on mentoring; and generally observing the University environment. In addition, I was assigned to the Diversity and Inclusion committee in TLS and appointed to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee in SBS. In Fall 2020, I was assigned to the Committee for Equity, Respect, and Inclusion in the Linguistics Department. 

The primary reason I accepted the Faculty Fellow position in the Graduate College is because I love mentoring, advising, and sponsoring URMS in particular, but graduate students in general, because I am committed to increasing opportunities and pipelines for said students. I am even more committed to doing the same for tenure-track Faculty of Color and particularly BIPOC women because that is my identity. I did not graduate sixth in my high school class or magna cum laude at the University of Texas at Austin or earn an MA and PHD from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor or become an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia or an endowed chair at the University of Texas at San Antonio or a Full Professor at UArizona – all as a first-generation, African American woman from a Southern working class family – by myself. I recognize the family, ancestors, mentors, and sponsors I had along the way and the debt I have to paying it forward. I am not here simply because of all the hard work I did; I am here because of the foundation provided by others who were invested in my getting here and bringing others along and even farther. That is my dedication and commitment to you at UArizona.

In Fall 2020, my first university-wide strategic effort to address mentoring and retention at UArizona is the launching of a Mentoring Professional Development Program with 12 faculty in STEM, Social Science, Humanities, and Professional fields. The goal is to develop a critical mass of faculty who are advocates for a higher level of mentoring for URMS with the result of higher levels of retention of URMS. I do realize that such mentoring is needed not only for URMS and that some of the professional development will be applicable to all graduate students. However, there are aspects of mentoring that faculty need to keep in mind when working with URMS; namely, URMS are not the same as traditional students. By traditional students, I mean the basis on which (higher) education is built: White, cis-het, middle-class, male students. UArizona is much more diverse than that, and education in general is more diverse than that. Part of my goal is help UArizona transition from maintaining the outdated paradigm of the traditional student because that has not been the case for decades. (Higher) education just has not caught up with the 21st century. As noted by local news reports, UArizona’s Fall 2020 class was its most diverse ever. The majority of students at UA are not White, cis-het, middle-class males. As such, a transformation that is embedded in what journalist and historian Isabel Wilkerson refers to as ‘caste’ in her new book (Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Random House, 2020) must be recognized and redressed in order for everyone to move forward for the benefit of themselves and society at large. 

In addition to mentoring and retention, I was recently tasked with developing an Anti-Racism Professional Development Program to implement in Spring 2021. As with the Mentoring Professional Development Program, it will include a small cohort first and then move to a larger scale rollout with the intention of creating a critical mass to advocate for transformation and visionary advancement. 

In Spring 2021, I and the graduate students who are working with me will write a follow-up column to this one to provide an update and their impressions as URMS. Those who have participated in these initial efforts will be able to share their own experiences and expectations for what I expect to be a move in the arc of social justice and equity for all.