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Winkle-Wagner discusses mentoring practices in inaugural WISCAPE podcast

by Brett Ranon Nachman | Mar 19, 2018

WISCAPE Now in Higher Ed logoWe are pleased to announce the inaugural episode in WISCAPE's "Now in Higher Ed" podcast series!

In the first episode, Brett Ranon Nachman speaks with Dr. Rachelle Winkle-Wanger, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at UW-Madison, about a 2017 Journal of College Student Development article ​she ​co-authored with Courtney L. Luedke and Dorian L. McCoy​. The article ​examines how college students of color find and experience mentoring and support in STEM fields.

Here are some of the highlights of the study, as detailed in the episode.

This multi-site critical study focuses on two institutions in the same state​ -- a predominantly white institution (PWI) institution and a historically black college and university (HBCU) –- with the participants primarily consisting of undergraduate and graduate STEM students, as well as faculty members.

Institutional type revealed major differences in the treatment and support of STEM students of color. Winkle-Wagner ​explains that STEM undergraduates at the HBCU were encouraged to pursue these fields, and they felt supported by faculty. On the other hand, at the nearby PWI, STEM students of color ​were “weeded out” from these disciplines.

“Rather than feeling as if there was an entrée ​... to the discipline and an encouragement to pursue science, technology, engineering, or mathematics fields, there was a sense that at predominantly white institutions, really, they were trying to get folks not to do that, so they could pare down the number of students...,” Winkle-Wagner noted.

She added that another article they wrote, ​​focused on the same institutions, revealed that some faculty acted with racial bias toward students of color and made derogatory remarks, even if they claimed to want to treat these students equally. “We find that the students’ perspectives are pretty much mirrored from the faculty perspective, meaning that the students did perceive faculty to be chillier at the predominantly white institution, where they felt faculty were less supportive and not as interested in having them succeed,” she said.

Gaining laboratory and research experience is particularly important for students to pursue further STEM education and work. Winkle-Wagner recommends faculty examine “who they are tapping to work with them on research projects,” because having those opportunities can open new doors. It is unfair to entirely place the burden on students of color to seek out and obtain such experience, Winkle-Wagner said, because some may be unaware of opportunities, and even among those who possess awareness, they may not know how to engage in successful reaching out ​for opportunities.

“We’re setting up students who are either students of color and/or first-generation or low-income students to be less successful, because they won’t know that certain things are available to them, so part of it means that faculty and departments and disciplines need to be better at reaching out specifically and very deliberately to populations of students that haven’t always been well included in that discipline,” Winkle-Wagner said.

“And when they do reach out, it needs to be such that it’s not just one student of color, for example, that’s being brought in,” she continued. That one student could have isolating or hostile experiences due to marginalization, so Winkle-Wagner recommends that clusters of students, with similar identities and experiences, are tapped to participate in such programs. In similar ways, hiring multiple faculty of color in a department is a positive practice, she said.

The notion of “open-door policies” is another theme highlighted in the study and episode. At the HBCU, “the students felt it was an open-door policy because the faculty, if the time was an appointed meeting time, the students felt that the faculty were really interested in that student as a whole,” she said. “So a lot of times that meant going beyond the ‘let’s get down to work, we have 15 minutes, what’s the one question I can answer for you today?’” Rather, students noted that faculty would say, “‘I remember your mom was sick. How’s your mom?’ So really going above and beyond to understand that these students have lives outside the university and outside the discipline, and that by honoring those lives outside and by viewing the student as a whole person, that the student actually received that as a more inclusive practice in the discipline.” Faculty demonstrated awareness and consideration in their students, further building rapport.

How can faculty incorporate more inclusive practices in mentoring STEM students of color? Winkle-Wagner said faculty training can help instructors think about “each student and their background and trying to meet the student where they are.” She has translated this knowledge to spread awareness at UW-Madison and help faculty reshape their practice. Additionally, greater education on holistic mentoring practices that addresses caring for students in multiple domains can result in stronger retention and high quality academic experiences. Exposure to studies like this may also serve as a “wake-up call” to faculty on redefining their techniques.

“I think really we need to build in rewards and sanctions based on our current university systems for doing well on these practices of mentoring students of color or not doing well,” Winkle-Wagner said. For instance, advisors should be rewarded for helping students of color persist through college, or perhaps even sanction those who possess a poor track record, she suggested. Winkle-Wagner said that it could be useful to determine the grade breakdown of a class, disaggregated by race, and if students of color are consistently not being graded well by a faculty member, it may be reflective of the instructor’s teaching practices. “We could begin to think about different ways of conceptualizing what it means to have merit as a faculty member, in terms of teaching and mentoring practice, and we can build that into tenure ultimately, into our major rewards and sanctions.”

Listen to the full episode on PodBean, or by ​searching for "WISCAPE Now in Higher Ed" on iTunes.

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