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Mentors Ease the Way

Like many faculty members, Jennifer Doering of Nursing found herself balancing teaching, research, community service and caring for a young child. As a friend told her, she was burning the candle at both ends, but doing it with a blowtorch.

Doering is one of many young faculty members who found help and advice in negotiating the academic life from mentors. (Her experience is recounted in an article on mentoring in a recent online newsletter from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Doering was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholar from 2008-11.)

Doering found her mentors, Chris Kovach and Razia Azen, within her own college, and also in UWM’s university-wide mentoring program. This program, designed primarily for junior faculty members, pairs faculty mentors and mentees who have the same divisional affiliation but are not from the same school or college.

Though the UWM Faculty Mentoring Program has been in existence for 20 years, “We’re hoping to raise the visibility of the program through Best Places to Work [BP2W],” says Paula Rhyner, associate dean for graduate studies and research in the College of Health Sciences, who directs the mentoring program for faculty.

Advancing careers

One of the 11 key initiatives of BP2W is to assure that all faculty and staff are provided with information and assistance to advance their careers at UWM.

Both Rhyner and Trudy Turner, secretary of the university and former interim coordinator of the faculty mentoring program, also serve on the BP2W team.

Nadya Fouad, now a professor of education, started UWM’s faculty mentoring program in 1993 as part of an effort to encourage and support women and faculty of color.

The program then expanded to include all junior faculty, says Rhyner, who became director in 1995. Even a few mid-career faculty looking to move to full professorships take part, she adds. The program is optional, though all new members of the faculty learn about it at New Faculty and Staff Orientation.

Right now, there are approximately 125 faculty pairs involved, according to Rhyner. “It provides some additional support for faculty members as they progress toward tenure and promotion.”

Examples of feedback from program participants:

“Sanity, encouragement, sounding board and a different take on things.”

“Ability to use my skills and experience in being a mentor.”

Promoting openness

In the university-wide program, faculty members are matched within one of four divisions – arts and humanities; professions; natural sciences; and social sciences. Mentees may request mentors with certain characteristics – a faculty member balancing family life and academics might request a mentor who’s faced similar challenges, for example.

“The mentors are asked to be supportive, but aren’t involved in the evaluation process [for promotion and tenure],” Rhyner notes. “That way the mentee can feel more open in discussing issues they might have.”

The mentoring relationship can involve everything from discussions about university policies and procedures to general information on professional advancement or details about the community and good places to eat.

The mentoring programs run by schools and colleges, such as the one in Nursing, follow the same basic principles, though mentors and mentees work in the same field, often closely together.

For example, Lucy Mkandawire-Valhmu and Peninnah M. Kako, assistant professors of nursing, worked closely with mentor Patricia Stevens, professor of nursing, on a number of projects related to health disparities.

Sticking with the program

Whether to participate in the university-wide mentoring program or a college-specific mentoring program is really an individual decision for the junior faculty member, says Turner. “They have to decide which makes most sense for them.”

The mentoring program is a feature that makes the university attractive to new faculty, says Rhyner, and other universities have invited her to consult with them about organizing similar programs.

Many former mentees have become mentors, and mentors often stay with the program year after year. Right now, in fact, there’s a waiting list of faculty members who want to be mentors. “Having been a mentor,” says Turner, who is also a professor of anthropology, “I can say it’s a very rewarding experience.”

Says Mark Mone, who leads the BP2W initiative: “Building on the successes of the faculty mentoring program that has long been a valued feature at UWM, our BP2W Faculty and Staff Career Paths group is exploring the interests and support areas for mentoring programs for academic and classified staffs.

“The Academic Staff Committee has been leading an effort to develop mentoring programs as well, and I think we will see progress in both of these areas in the coming academic year.

“We believe that if anyone feels that there would be value in having a mentor at UWM, we should work on ways to make that happen.”

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