As an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Jeanett Castellanos, PhD, was just glad she'd made it to college. Neither of her parents—both Cuban refugees—had graduated from high school, and they were exuberant about their daughter's success. "I thought I would just get a BA. I didn't think there was anything further," Castellanos says.
But that changed when a friend sought to introduce her to a professor who, she told Castellanos, "is going to change your life," Castellanos recalls. He was Joseph L. White, PhD, now professor emeritus at the university and renowned for his life-changing mentoring of many students. As soon as Castellanos walked into his office, she was greeted by "this charismatic, personable man" who helped her sketch out her educational trajectory on his wall-to-wall chalkboard.
Castellanos fulfilled the vision they outlined that day, which included a master's degree in counseling psychology and a doctorate in higher education. She went on to become director of UCI's Social Science Academic Resource Center, where she helped numerous undergraduate students secure the tools they needed to be ready for grad school. Today, she's a tenured faculty member with her own research mentoring program, and she and White are co-authoring a book on mentoring.
Castellanos's story speaks to the power of this vital academic relationship—how connecting with the right people at the right time can vastly influence a student's school and career trajectory. Yet for first-generation students and many minority students, finding good mentors and getting the most out of these connections can be daunting. That's because in many cases they're not versed in the culture of academe, says White.
"These students are entering a new way of life, and they have to understand that it's more than just the academic side of college or grad school that's important," he says. "They need to get connected to the decision-makers in the field."
The obstacles to finding mentors and otherwise gaining a strong foothold in academe can be psychological as well, says Kevin Cokley, PhD, professor of counseling psychology and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His research shows that graduate students of color are more likely than white students to experience the "impostor phenomenon"—the belief held by some high-achieving people that they're frauds and will be seen as such. This phenomenon takes on added significance for students of color because they may internalize stereotypes that they're in school simply because of affirmative action, says Cokley, whose results are in press at the Journal of Counseling Psychology.
"So when you combine that with what most grad students feel about imposterism," he says, "it becomes racialized."
Fortunately, there are ways to overcome such challenges and find great mentors who can help students achieve their highest potential. Read on for advice from students and psychologists versed in this valuable relationship…