Creating Connection: The First Year of the Grad Mentorship Program

Posted on Friday, May 26th, 2023

A good mentor can impact one’s life in incredible ways. Mentorship can help open doors, create connections, build confidence, and support career direction. In addition, learning from someone with different experiences and perspectives can often shed new light on challenges or reinforce what you know to be true. 

To better support racialized students at the University of Guelph, the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences (CSAHS) and the College of Arts (COA) teamed up to harness the power of mentorship and launch the new Graduate Mentorship Program for the 2022/23 academic year. The program creates a safe space for Black, Indigenous, and racialized graduate students, faculty and staff to build community, exchange knowledge, insights and experiences. 

“We know it can be difficult for Black, Indigenous and racialized graduate students to find mentors who understand the unique challenges that they face,” said Abii Barrett, Inclusion Advisor for CSAHS and organizer of the Graduate Mentorship Program. “Through this program, we wanted to build connections between students and mentors, to foster a community of support on campus and ultimately provide our grad students with more opportunities to diversify their skillset and build on the tools they need to excel.” 

A Black graduate student talks to a table full of other professors and students.
A mentee shares at the mentorship program dinner.

For the first year of the program, 10 students were matched with nine mentors. Each mentor and mentee created a relationship that worked for them, chatting over coffee in-person or catching up virtually over a video call to discuss current challenges, future career goals, and everything in-between. 

One mentee, Philosophy PhD student İlknur Özallı, found that the mentorship with Psychology faculty member Professor Leanne Son Hing was just what she needed in the final year of her PhD. “I saw the email appear in my inbox and I thought to myself, why not try it!” said İlknur. “When I met with Leanne we talked about everything - our research, career advice, how to communicate effectively, what it’s like to work in academia as a racialized woman... our conversations really enlivened me and helped me rekindle my passion. They affirmed my existence and helped me see how some of my challenges were due to systemic failures, not my own failings.” 

Ilknur Ozali, a graduate student, speaks to a long table full of professors and students.
İlknur Özallı.

Leanne was also pleasantly surprised to find how their interests overlapped. “I was initially unsure if I’d have much to offer someone who’s in a different discipline, but I didn’t need to worry!” said Leanne. “Even though we’re coming at our research from different perspectives, we were able to have substantive conversations over our common interests. Really what she was looking for was someone to connect with and get feedback from on issues that are common across disciplines. It was a pleasure to get to know İlknur and be able to encourage her to be herself and that she has a place in the academe.” 

Laureen Owaga smiles as she looks at Mary Anne Chambers as their seated at a table together.
Laureen Owaga.

Second year Psychology and International Development Studies PhD student Laureen Owaga intentionally sought out the program to help find her way at U of G. “As I came to Guelph, I was looking for some kind of mentorship service like this to give me guidance,” said Laureen. “I was matched with sociologist Dr. Paulina García-Del Moral, who gave me incredibly valuable insights into how to deal with conflict and power dynamics. I’ve put into practice the practical skills she taught me and they have worked so well.” 

It's not just a one-way street – mentors often benefit from the mentorship as well. Political Science faculty member Professor David MacDonald noted that he learned a lot from mentoring PhD candidate Vanessa Rhodes. “By mentoring Vanessa, I learned about the challenges grad students have encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic, including lack of mobility and difficulty in carrying out research,” said David. “I was glad I was able to help give advice about presenting her work, build her CV and discuss a variety of topics related to academia. Overall, I am optimistic about the hard work, dedication, and skill of our students and I look forward to seeing Vanessa and others excel in their future careers!” 

A group of diverse faculty and graduate students sit together at a long table set for dinner.

The 2023 Grad Mentorship Program Dinner
with CORE and GMP participants.

The Graduate Mentorship Program also hosted events throughout the year to create more opportunities for connection and discuss topics such as navigating racial identity in academia and publishing and alumni perspectives on career paths. To celebrate the end of the program’s first year, University Chancellor Dr. Mary Anne Chambers joined students and mentors from the Graduate Mentorship Program and the Creating Opportunities for Racial Equity Mentorship Program in April for a delightful evening of conversation and connection over dinner. 

The next intake for the Graduate Mentorship Program will be in Fall 2023, when the program will seek to register both mentees and mentors.  

For students who aren’t sure about mentorship, Laureen encourages students to come with flexibility to learn and recognize that they may need to adjust to work with some who may have different approaches than they do. “If you are encountering challenges in your mentorship, don’t be afraid to speak up! Reach out to Abii for extra support and she can help you figure out how you can get the most out of your mentorship.” 

Questions about the program? Contact Inclusion Advisor Abii Barrett

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