Early-Career Mentoring Institute

Early-Career Mentoring Institute

National Research Center on Poverty and Economic Mobility

Welcome to UC Davis and to this inaugural Early-Career Mentoring Institute!

What a wonderful opportunity this is to make connections and receive the type of guidance and support that will help you take charge of your careers.

I’d like to thank our team at the UC Davis Center for Poverty & Inequality Research and everyone involved with planning and hosting this event. I also want to thank Katherine Magnuson, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty, for your ongoing support. UC Davis is proud to be partnering with you on this effort.

To all of the scholars … the fact that you’re taking part in the Mentoring Institute tells me that you’re already high achievers, noted for research excellence and leadership potential. And that you’re committed to supporting underrepresented populations and working to combat inequities and poverty.

I’m pleased to share part of my academic journey, along with a few ideas to consider as you continue to establish your careers in academia.

First, turn adversity into motivation.

A lack of diversity in academia and in my own field of engineering really motivated me to make a difference. Women and minorities are abysmally underrepresented in STEM. It’s been an intractable problem for many years.

When I started out as an undergraduate student at Georgia Tech, I discovered there were not many students of color in the engineering classes. In a lecture hall with 200 people, only a handful of those were African American students.

When I got my Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1991, I was one of only about 30 African Americans that year who had earned a doctorate in the field of engineering. I’m talking 30 in the entire United States!

I’ve spent much of my career working to increase diversity on college campuses and in the workforce, particularly in STEM. At Georgia Tech, I helped create a set of programs to increase the number of minority students in our graduate programs. That work made the Georgia Tech College of Engineering the largest and most diverse in the nation.

I was fortunate to have some great mentors who taught me a lot about leadership. I’ve always tried to remember that and to pay it forward by helping others succeed, especially women and other underrepresented groups.

That brings me to my second point: look for good mentors and opportunities to build community. Everyone needs help along the way to career and life goals and that’s especially true for underrepresented groups. So, I’m a huge proponent of mentorship and building community.

One of my early mentors was Dr. Augustine Esogbue, the first black engineering professor at Georgia Tech. He took me under his wing, and my world opened up through his influence. 

Later in my career, I found another important mentor. That was Wayne Clough, President Emeritus of Georgia Tech. He gave me a pivotal opportunity by selecting me as faculty executive assistant at Georgia Tech.  I was something like a chief-of-staff and I learned about high-level administrative responsibilities in academia, and how complex organizations like these are run.

The National Society of Black Engineers was also a game-changer for me. And my connection with NSBE continues to this day. Through this organization, I had living proof of Black people finding success in the engineering field.

One of my favorite quotes on mentorship is from former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Jocelyn Elders. She says: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

So, I encourage you to seek out mentors and opportunities to build community within your organizations. That includes faculty associations for underrepresented groups or other diversity programs.

At UC Davis, we have a new initiative called “Faculty Retention and Inclusive Excellence Networks — Designing Solutions” — or FRIENDS. It focuses on retention of underrepresented faculty and fostering greater faculty inclusion and long-term academic success.

We also have two successful centers working to advance academic diversity in STEM and in the social sciences, humanities and arts. These are the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Science, or CAMPOS. And the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Social Science, Arts, and Humanities, or CAMPSSAH.

Both of these centers focus on expanding the ranks of women and underrepresented faculty. CAMPOS and CAMPSSAH scholars are shining examples of inclusive excellence who embed diversity in their teaching and research. They are an elite group of scholars who fill a much-needed pipeline of diverse talent to our workforce, research labs and universities.

On that note, try to embed the important work into your teaching, research and overall career goals.

For me, that work was diversity, equity and inclusion. For you, it may be engaging with underrepresented groups or tackling the important issues of poverty, inequality and social mobility.

Some faculty focus almost exclusively on research over service and teaching. I think we have to find the right balance. I was very committed to my scholarship, especially early in my career. But I was also motivated to make a difference and to help increase diversity in the STEM fields.

I always viewed diversity, equity and inclusion as part of — not separate from — my work. And I think that made it a little easier to prioritize overall commitments, whether for research, teaching or DEI work.

Now, I’m going to borrow a phrase from my Spider-Man comic books: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

That’s another way of saying that this path is not for the faint-hearted. Know that much will be required of you. You’ll have to juggle intense demands as a pre-tenure faculty member, while conducting engaged research and doing the meaningful work to reduce inequities and increase social mobility. It may feel like a high-wire act at times.

But it’s achievable and the rewards will be great. There’s nothing better than looking back at your 30-plus year career and realizing that you were able to accomplish things that once seemed impossible.

So, let me conclude with one final suggestion: Just do it. Chart your course and do everything in your power to create the fulfilling and impactful career you desire. Explore all your options. And as I mentioned, look for others who can support you along the way — mentors, partners and organizations that share your values.

We need your expertise and growing leadership to create a better tomorrow for everyone.

Primary Category