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The art of faculty mentoring: Student-professor relationships benefit both parties

The art of faculty mentoring: Student-professor relationships benefit both parties

November 4, 2016 at 12:00am

As an undergraduate, Shonda Witherspoon ’16 co-published an article in a scientific journal. Her identical twin Shalisha ’16 led the development of a multifaceted software system.

The sisters reached these incredible heights thanks to mentoring from Naphtali Rishe. The eminent professor of computer science holds five U.S. patents and directs several acclaimed university and community research centers. He is the principal investigator on numerous projects, many of them funded by the National Science Foundation.

So when an instructor suggested that Rishe meet the Witherspoons—first-generation college students who went on to graduate this past summer with the highest GPAs in the College of Engineering & Computing—busy Rishe jumped at the chance to hire qualified help. Impressed by the sisters’ assertiveness and enthusiasm, he offered them jobs, and the three soon dove into an important symbiotic relationship: The students contributed to the cutting-edge research coming out of Rishe’s lab—the two mostly created and maintained specialized collections, or datasets, of geographical and related information for access on the web—and the professor helped the two deepen and refine their skills by providing direct feedback on their activities.

“They have done spectacular work. It is a privilege working with them,” says Rishe, who has appreciated the chance to support two young talents in a meaningful way—something he continues to do as the women pursue graduate degrees at FIU. “This is an old-fashioned apprenticeship,” he says of what has resulted in both a productive collaboration and a close bond.

Read more about mentoring: Coaching the whole athlete

Creating researchers

The payoff for the Witherspoons is undeniable. “In our case, the exposure learning from someone who has been doing this a long time is something you can’t quite learn in a classroom,” Shonda explains. “You can actually become a research scientist.”

The opportunity to conduct scientific investigations as undergraduates adds volumes to their competitive edge as future job candidates, Shalisha adds. “It makes us stand out, especially [working] with someone that is held in such high esteem as Dr. Rishe.”

The Witherspoon-Rishe alliance (pictured above, left to right: Shalisha, Rishe and Shonda) exemplifies the value of faculty mentoring. Such connections significantly impact students on several fronts, from graduating on time to finding internships and jobs, establishing networks and earning admission into graduate school. At FIU, these mentorships have become increasingly common and reflect the importance of having a seasoned educator work directly and deliberately with young people brimming with potential.

Modeling success

Art education master’s student Abdiel Acosta gives credit for much of his success to his mentoring relationship with nationally renowned artist and art education professor David Chang.

“Here’s someone who has been teaching 30-something years, that is a practicing artist, who came from a great lineage of schools in Europe, and he just lays it all out,” Acosta says. “It’s just incredible to have someone that is that focused on helping you climb those steps and will really push you.”

Teaching lies at the heart of mentorship, Chang says, viewing mentorship as customized one-on-one teaching. Only better: the mentee picks the topic.

Mentorship doesn’t have to end on graduation day. “We often maintain a mentorship relationship through their careers,” Chang adds, explaining that many of his mentees keep coming back to him and even become alumni mentors to current students.

“The reason I keep mentoring is because it gives me new opportunities to learn how to more effectively help others,” Chang says. “It is a privilege few others have – the privilege to witness that change from not knowing to knowing, inspiration and creativity.”

Katharine Lawrence MD ’16 likewise found strength in a mentor who models what she hopes to accomplish in her career. Dr. Pedro “Joe” Greer is an associate dean in the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. His work on behalf of the indigent earned him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, the highest recognition given to civilians by the United States.

“I look at him and I see success in the intersection of medicine and social justice,” says Lawrence, who earned her medical degree this year. “It’s hugely important to have mentors who embody in their work and their passion this thing that you like to do,” she says, “because then you know that your goal is achievable.”

With a lifetime of insightful anecdotes to tell and plenty of lessons to share, Greer clearly has much to teach aspiring physicians about the world. All that means little, he stresses, if the mentoring relationship does not start from a place of mutual respect.

“Mentorship is not telling people how to do things,” he says. “It’s guiding, supporting, teaching people not about your success, but teaching people where you messed up, and letting them know they are not by themselves out there.”  ♦