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Op-ed: Underrepresented students could benefit from improved approach to mentor programs

(Amy Dixon/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Blanche Wright

Oct. 7, 2019 10:44 p.m.

This past year, UCLA was under federal investigation for granting white, wealthy applicants admission based on bribes – not merit.

As a new school year begins, we must not overlook the undergraduate population of underrepresented racial/ethnic minority (URM) students who actually earned their spots. More than that, graduate students and faculty should realize their responsibilities in mentoring these students through the difficult process of their college career.

The toll of being a URM student at UCLA is something I know all too well. In 2009, I became a pre-medical student because my mother, who fled war in El Salvador, urged me to become a physician. My various identities – including being low-income and first-generation American – culminated in immense pressure to prove that I belonged. As a psychobiology student, I consistently struggled academically, which fostered deep feelings of embarrassment. For two years, I feared that I would get “weeded out,” but I also felt ambivalent about becoming a doctor.

Everything changed when a developmental psychology doctoral student took me under her wing. I will never forget the day at UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, where I described my interests in being a therapist but also understanding the role of Latinx culture in youth mental health treatment. She remarked that a clinical psychology Ph.D. seemed like a good match and sensing my confusion, she differentiated it from medical school. In a 10-minute conversation, she helped me realize that medicine was not my passion. She pointed me to a career path that both fit my interests and fulfilled my mother’s hope for me to be a doctor – just not a medical one. This is my first memory of receiving meaningful, personalized mentorship.

But many students do not have the luxury of similar memories – and they should.

Though a variety of people can serve as mentors, graduate students and faculty have numerous opportunities to make a meaningful impact on URM students at UCLA – especially in the field of psychology, which is one of the most popular majors at the university. Unfortunately, mentorship training is not standard in the graduate curriculum.

This is problematic, because passive graduate students and faculty may not actively consider ways in which personal identity can impact one’s work, resulting in unpleasant interactions for URM mentees.

The stakes are high. The psychology field cannot afford to discourage URM students given the American Psychological Association reports that only 16% of the psychology workforce are racial/ethnic minorities. Beyond that, there is an urgency for bilingual providers. Sensitive mentoring of URM students could do a lot to fix this problem in the psychology pipeline.

So what would this mentorship actually look like?

To start, mentors should be trained on how to remain professional while also building personal connections. Take my experience, for example. I am now a UCLA clinical psychology doctoral student, where I study strategies to improve parent engagement in mental health treatment for Latinx youth and also gain training to be a therapist. Additionally, I mentor several Latinx undergraduates with whom I share many other identities.

In my clinical training, I have learned to always consider the therapeutic function of sharing personal details about myself with clients. I have applied this same guideline when using self-disclosure in mentorship. Over time, I recognized that sharing key details about myself is a powerful tool, allowing me to authentically connect with my mentees and provide tailored professional development advice. In the background, I closely monitor my own comfort as I share more details or anecdotes. Striking this balance has taken several years, but it would have been accelerated with appropriate mentorship training.

Second, mentors should make efforts to become aware and demonstrate sensitivity to students’ URM status. In psychology, paying special attention to undergraduates’ reactions seems crucial, as many of the topics being studied may have personal significance to mentees.

For instance, conducting a study on trauma may remind a URM student about past personal experiences. At times, students may volunteer these reactions, in which case, mentors need to know how to react appropriately while maintaining their professional relationship. As a therapist-in-training, I have learned tools to process with students, but mentors in other nonclinical psychology fields may not – another reason to standardize mentorship training in graduate education.

Lastly, mentors should connect URM students to scholarly programs explicitly designed for them. As a top-tier university for research, UCLA has many scholarly programs that aim to increase diversity by facilitating the execution of independent research projects, providing professional development seminars and offering financial assistance. Mentors should identify and help URM students write applications for programs. More than likely, a URM student has never developed a personal/research statement. Based on my experiences as a mentor, iterative feedback will surely make for competitive applications to UCLA research programs like the Psychology Research Opportunities Programs and the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program.

Overall, mentorship of URM students requires a willingness to build personal connections, demonstrate sensitivity to their backgrounds, and provide assistance for accessing targeted resources. I challenge the UCLA community – especially graduate student and faculty mentors – to consider how we can improve our mentorship approach to help URM college students reach their fullest potential.

It’s time to make this a more central part of our higher education.

Wright is a fourth-year clinical psychology doctoral student.

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