First Mentoring Week not ‘a total flop’

At a catered reception on Thursday marking the end of Mentoring Week at the Graduate School, faculty and Graduate Student Assembly members espoused the program’s success — although some of the students said they were only lured by the free hors d’oeuvres and open bar.

The weeklong initiative — the product of a collaboration between the faculty and GSA — included a series of panels, workshops and presentations that aimed to define the role of the mentor and to brainstorm ways to increase communication between mentors and graduate students. Organizers declared the first-ever Mentoring Week a success and an important first step toward strengthening a culture of healthy mentorship.

Graduate School Dean Jon Butler called the program — especially the departmental mentoring programs — a “great success.” He said the program helped professors better understand students’ needs so they can become better mentors and help their mentees be more successful.

Yale’s advising initiative reflects a growing interest at graduate schools nationwide in developing better mentoring programs, Butler said.

But few students took advantage of activities outside of those held by their own academic departments.

Most Mentoring Week events attracted moderate-sized crowds, organizers said, but GSA chair Bobbi Sutherland GRD ’09 said she was nevertheless pleased with the program’s turnout.

“I was worried that [Mentoring Week] would be a total flop, which it wasn’t,” she said. “I had hoped a few more people would show up to [the keynote speech], though, especially faculty.”

The keynote address was delivered by Kathy Barker, the author of two guides on improving interpersonal relationships in academic settings. Barker delivered a 35-minute PowerPoint presentation on how to find a mentor, how to be a good mentor and how institutions can support mentoring relationships.

Events included a student workshop and seven departmental conversations between students and faculty.

“Expect it,” Barker told students, encouraging them to seek and demand healthy relationships. “It’s your right.”

The speech, which drew about 40 students and professors, included tips for both mentors and mentees.

GSA spokesperson Nicholas Goodbody GRD ’10 helped plan the departmental meeting for French, Spanish and Italian, he said. He estimated that about 60 students, representing almost every graduate student in those departments, attended the discussion. Still, Goodbody said Mentoring Week has “plenty of room to grow.”

Because of the challenges of independent research and the rigor of the graduate curriculum, both students and professors said graduate students need guidance they can trust.

“When it comes to mentors, it’s about finding the right fit for you,” molecular biophysics and biochemistry, genetics and therapeutic radiology professor Susan Baserga said. “Your mentor also acts as an advocate for your career.”

The mentorship experience can make or break a graduate education, GSA member Elizabeth Kim ’10 said. While it is uncommon, she said she has known several students in her department who have dropped out because they could not forge workable relationships with their advisors.

“The bigger problem is for international students in that situation, when leaving Yale means leaving the United States,” she said. “This kind of program is good for getting the word out that it’s OK to ask for help.”

But Chris Nixon GRD ’12 said while he participated in his department’s panel, he did not have time to attend other Mentoring Week activities.

“Most things at this school fly by before I can even realize they happened,” he said.

Sabine Engwer ’08 said she was too busy to participate in Mentoring Week fully, but she appreciates that Yale provides more mentoring resources than many universities in her native Germany.

“There’s much less guidance there — everything’s up to you,” she said. “At Yale, someone takes you by the hand and everything is nicely laid out for you.”

Kim said the idea for Mentoring Week grew out of a conference with other Ivy League graduate school governments.

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