Mentors for STEM Undergraduates
Written by: Vanessa Avila
The STEM field is very diverse with career opportunities that it can stir indecisiveness when it comes to picking the right STEM major that one can be solid about. It’s not unusual for students to wonder whether they are pursuing something they truly want if they don’t even have the slightest clue about the reality of their ideal careers. STEM undergraduates particularly have intense curriculums that bound them to their academic responsibilities, while other STEM students juggle their school life with part-time jobs. It makes it easier for these students to disconnect with their own school advisors or individuals who can help them know more about the working environment relevant to the majors they are pursuing.
Having someone who will shed light about the atmosphere of a specific career or major in STEM can help undergraduates know what to expect as they apply their knowledge and skills to the real world. In a time of doubt and uncertainty as to whether one is in the right track, a mentor who can speak from experience can come in handy! To have a good look at the scope of what one can reap from being mentored, a series of questions were asked to mentors and STEM students, thoroughly discussing the perks and the bouts of mentorship.
Preparing STEM Students for the Future Through Mentors
Typically, students identify their lack of interest for their majors through the courses they take, but there exists many students who enjoy their courses and complete them successfully. However some students feel dissatisfaction once they start working their careers. As mentioned, professional mentors working in the areas being studied by STEM undergraduates can help students have a true grasp of their potential roles in their ideal careers. Students can have an idea of what it will be like through the words of an experienced mentor, and it can help individual students assess whether their chosen majors are the right ones for them at an earlier time before completing a degree in a field they might regret working in.
Sayrah Muyco, a current undergraduate pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering in Xavier University (Philippines), has expressed how she was given the impression that her chosen career path was one of the challenging paths to take in the engineering world. Under the guidance of a mentor, she claims that he has helped her prepare for future situations she might encounter in her career by exposing her to relevant lessons and situations that can stand as potential challenges towards her journey of becoming successful. In addition to this, he also helped her identify her own strengths and weaknesses. She states, “I realized that I’m good at programming, yet bad at lab works,” when discussing what she was able to take out of the activities he provided for her to identify her strong and weak spots. STEM mentors who are capable of showing their students their strong and weak sides enable the knowledge of what the student can refine or improve. This in turn can mold strengths that will uniquely represent them apart from other contenders who have acquired similar skills necessary for a specific career.
STEM Undergraduates can also increase their networking pool for valuable connections with the help of a mentor. These connections can be a boost in having important opportunities in-hand and enable students to be noticed by working professionals while still studying in school. A great example is Jordan Oliver, an undergraduate student fulfilling her academic responsibilities as a mechanical engineer. “Networking crossed my mind before I met my mentor, but I didn’t practice very often since I rarely attended events where networking would be possible,” says Jordan. “But whenever we’re with people, my mentor encourages me to continue sharpening my networking skills, or sometimes, I watch her network and see the talking points and questions she chooses. ” Jordan has maintained a good relationship with her mentor for over two years and continues to find her as an inspiration.
Sharing A Different Perspective in Following Career Paths
Not only can mentors relay tasks and responsibilities inside the working environment to their protégés, they can also show how one can be creative with a specific major and follow a non-linear career path. This is evidently true for Vianne Greek who is a Cloud Services Administrator at Virginia Tech and a current mentor in a STEM mentorship program held at Virginia Western Community College. In regards to her experience, she explains, “the degree may or may not lead you to your true path. My career has taken a very circuitous route to lead me where I am, and I’m in a role for which my natural talents and abilities are a natural fit, but in a field in which i have no formal education. So, while it’s important to complete the degree, your chosen major may not dictate your life or career going forward.”
Vianne initially obtained a bachelor’s degree in Marketing and soon topped it off with a master’s degree in Business Administration. However, her current career involves information technology. Throughout her college study, she transitioned from marketing to databases, to financial, back to marketing, switching again to marketing a database-based platform, and finally to marketing and administering technological software. The skills she has obtained throughout her college and work experience have been generously exhibited through her various occupations, both in marketing and information technology, and it has shown her creativity in utilizing her foundational majors. She also has set another milestone for herself by being a strengths coach, venturing in another path that fuels her various interests.
Mentorship Encouraging the Close to the Gender Gap in STEM
It has definitely been stressed in today’s society that there is a scarcity of women joining the STEM field. Yong describes that women taking engineering courses is similar to “running a psychological gauntlet” with having to evade from sexism and the “implicit tendency to see engineering as a male discipline.” In addition to this, he highlights that it has been found that the U.S. only has 13 to 22 percent of women with engineering doctorates, not to mention the overall low percentage of women in the sciences as a whole (Yong, 2017). This reels in the roles of female mentors and how it is recognized as an important factor to bring more women in the STEM field and break the stigma of these known “male-dominant” professions.
“Engineering was very much considered ‘men’s work’ when I started in 1979, and the few bosses who served as mentors to me made up for the dozens of others who either subtly or blatantly indicated I didn’t belong,” answers Kimberley Homer when asked why she chose to be a mentor alongside her occupation as a Systems Engineer/Analyst. “Young people, or any person studying for a new career, hear mass marketed messages designed to sell the student loans, computers and apps, online courses, clothing, and cars that the sellers want to sell,” added Homer. “A mentor serves the protégée for the purpose of her well-being.”
Homer had the opportunity to mentor a young lady named Aziza Longi who she describes as an insightful and empathic person that has walked a life completely different from her own. Aziza is currently following an engineering curriculum but realized that it is not the path she feels strongly in continuing. Meeting Kimberley Homer taught her that in order to succeed, one needed to fail and experience rejection for it is essential to one’s growth. “She breaks the stereotype of engineers being anti-social and stubborn by learning from people through all walks of life, spending her time traveling and joining various social events.” says Aziza. She has been the ultimate role model for me and I’m so glad that I have met her.”
Alexie Jean Jacques, a female undergraduate pursuing Civil Engineering, was mentored–and continues to be connected to Sarah Glenn, a fellow structural engineer and project manager for AECOM. When Alexie was asked how Sarah helped shape her perspective about the working environment in STEM, she explains, “Sarah taught me that it is more than possible to be a female engineer. So often when we hear the word ‘engineer’ we think ‘male dominated field.’ Women play a vital role in the engineering field performing just as well as men do. The engineering world, believe it or not, has women, mothers, wives, breast cancer survivors… The list goes on.” Alexie admitted that through her study as a civil engineering student in Virginia Western Community College, she has had moments of feeling discouraged when she did not automatically understand a concept taught in class. Sarah’s words and encouragement have been sources of motivation for Alexie to power through her courses.
A recent study showed that female engineering undergraduate students with female mentors have “higher retention in engineering and more intentions to pursue advanced engineering degrees,” compared to the ones who were assisted by male mentors or no mentors at all. Although the study reflected that male mentors and female mentors were “equally conscientious”, it was evident that female students found more comfort and similarities with female mentors and the resulting effect from some male mentors fell along the same line as having no mentors at all (Dennehy and Dasgupta, 2017).
A consultant for TFR Services, LLC, Kim Long mentions that through her work as a consultant in the company, she often encountered young women who felt “overworked or underpaid” despite being recent graduates. Her efforts as a mentor involved her teaching her own mentee about how she was able to work around an environment filled with males. “I never let it be an excuse, I didn’t complain or go to HR or anything like that,” says Kim. “I wasn’t a ‘whiner’, for lack of a better way to say it. I ‘sucked it up buttercup’ and worked both harder and smarter. I carried the book ‘Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office’ for a long time earlier in my career. It wasn’t until later that I learned I could be nice and get the corner office… In the end, I told her I can honestly say [that] I have achieved every single career goal I’ve ever set for myself.”
Is The Idea of Mentorship Not as Dispersed?
When asking STEM students about who they consider have guided and taught them about the actuality of their majors, the usual response was the incapability to pinpoint a specific person who has fulfilled that role. When mentors were asked if mentoring is extended commonly to society, many seemed to agree that while it exists and plenty of individuals get the chance to be guided by knowledgeable peers, there are still a good number of individuals who do not have this guidance for various reasons. A mentor herself, Diane Stokes, believes that there is no “deficit” when it comes to mentors and mentorship, rather there is a need to reach people who do not have access to such a resource.
Dr. Victoria Cox, a mentor and a Nurse Recruiter for the Department of Veterans Affairs, mentions how connectivity in a mentor-protégé relationship also plays a role in the blossoming of a mentor-filled community. “It is being encouraged more in today’s society yet the formalities are met without the connecting relationships. The mentoring experience is more than a checkbox or time to complete, it is about establishing lifelong connections from which both parties involved can grow!” says Dr. Cox. “Mentorship is important to educate and inspire youth to the principles and morals that are the foundation of this nation’s existence. In this time our world is faced with such challenges that lifting one another up, if only by one relationship at a time, is essential to the continual being of mankind. The mentorship connection is necessary to grow the people.”
- Dennehy, T. C., & Dasgupta, N. (2017, May 22). Female Peer Mentors Early in College Increase
Women’s Positive Academic Experiences and Retention in Engineering. Retrieved June 06, 2017, from http://www.pnas.org/content/114/23/5964.full
- Yong, E. (2017, May 22). How Women Mentors Make a Difference in Engineering. Retrieved
June 06, 2017, from
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