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When Searching For Mentors, Look 'Beyond Race'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, I'm Michel Martin. As you know this is our final Wednesday on the air and this is the day we usually feature a feature a Wisdom Watch conversation, that's a discussion with a guest who's made a difference through a lifetime of work and achievement. Our next guest has a lot of wisdom to share. Freeman Hrabowski is the president of the University Of Maryland Baltimore County. Time magazine named him one of the 10 best college presidents back in 2009 and then named him one of the most 100 influential people in the world in 2012. U.S. News & World Report's college guide has named UMBC the top up-and-coming national university for five years running. In part because you'd be has become a leader not just in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields - the so-called STEM fields - but also because it's become a success in supporting women and people of color in those areas of study. Freeman Hrabowski is one of the top thinkers in academia and in the challenges of bringing diversity into higher education. He's been a frequent guest on this program and a leading voice in our Blacks in Tech series, so that's why we wanted to have him back on our air for one last time. Welcome back. Thank you for joining us.

FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: Thank you. Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: We want to focus on mentoring in today's program, and I wanted to ask if you had a mentor.

HRABOWSKI: I've had so many mentors and all of my mentors would want me to say that my campus also has great programs in the arts and humanities. So I...

MARTIN: OK, well, that being said...

HRABOWSKI: ...That being said I start with my parents. My mother the English teacher, seriously. My parents were wonderful mentors, and particularly my mother. My father had been a very hard worker and had been a teacher, but my father had a brain tumor and he had a - by the time I was 19 he was sick. But my mother constantly was mentoring me, even through grad school and as a college president she was still having an influence over me in many ways.

MARTIN: Now, you're from Birmingham, Alabama. You grew up during the civil rights movement.


MARTIN: You weren't just observer, that you were actually jailed yourself for several days. I have read that Martin Luther King Jr. actually came to the jail where you were being held. Do you mind just telling us briefly about that? And did that have an - make an impression on you?

HRABOWSKI: Sure. I was in jail for a week, having marched. And Reverend King came with other leaders and our parents and they were outside the jailhouse. He talked, and they sang songs, and the kids were crying and wanted to get out quite frankly, and very, very frightened. And I remember he said to all of us, what you're doing will have an impact on children who've not been born. And we didn't understand the profundity there but we did know it was something important about what he was saying, and it gave us hope, it did give us hope.

MARTIN: Does a mentor have to be somebody who's really good at something, or does a mentor had to be somebody who's just - air quotes here - there for you, and consistently there for you, and makes you feel like you matter?

HRABOWSKI: That's a great question. I think a mentor is good at caring about the person. I think a mentor is someone who gets to know the person, knows the strengths and weaknesses of the person, and will tell you the truth, tells that person. Usually the mentor obviously knows more about life than the person does and will say you ought to think about this, or you're going in this direction - may be a problem here - or you ought to think about this, or you ought to think about your relationships, or as my mother would often say, Freeman, you talk much too fast, or you need to do more reading in this area, or you're - you're somewhat shallow in this area. Or as my principal would sometimes say, Freeman, you want to take the time to think carefully about the way you go about solving these math problems, you're too careless. Right? It's amazing to me how people can make a statement that's a paragraph that can stay with you for the rest of your life, and so these are people who have observed you, and get a sense of what's good, and what could be better.

MARTIN: Now, you've incorporated this idea of the importance of mentorship into the program at UMBC, which you would like to be surely point out also places an emphasis on arts and humanities as well as the stem fields, so - but how does that work on the campus-wide basis? Is this part of the evaluation or performance evaluation of the faculty and staff there? How does this get institutionalized in a way that's meaningful?

HRABOWSKI: We talk about institutional culture Michelle, and we define the culture as the core of who we are - values and part of our values focus on our caring about students. Our very understanding that our mission in teaching and learning has to do with developing them as people, as broadly educated, liberally educated people. What does it mean to get a liberal arts education? And so we talk about the significance of professors and students really educating people working together.

MARTIN: But how does that work? You know, there's a saying - what doesn't get scheduled, doesn't get done. So is this part of everyone's portfolio? Is this like peer-pressure, like I don't see you meeting with students. How does it actually work, so that it works?

HRABOWSKI: You have structure so of course people have office hours, of course they have advisees, and of course there are opportunities for students to meet with students - with faculty in regular terms and regular times because quite frankly, students have to have opportunities to talk about their major to talk about how the major fits with grad school, or professional school or job. But much more than that, you'll see faculty and students sitting and just talking about what the world is about. Talking about articles and books, and you'll see a lot of focus groups on campus with people discussing ideas. It's just - it's a part of the culture and you said something a pressure, peer-pressure - I think it is the case that in enlightened situations people do feel that it is the responsibility that young people move to the next level.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us we're having a Wisdom Watch conversation, our final Wisdom Watch conversation with Freeman Hrabowski. He's the president of the University Of Maryland Baltimore County. Let's talk about the other side of the equation which is the mentor. In fields where people of color or women are rare. It's been my experience that visible people are flooded with requests to be mentors, I mean - for mentoring and for career advice - I'm assuming that you have had this experience yourself.

HRABOWSKI: Sure, sure.

MARTIN: How do you manage that? You know, on the one hand you obviously want to be available to people but I'm told that in academia in particular, young scholars particularly when they're you know, visible - highly visible - either as women or as people of color - you know, they're expected to do all these committees - the diversity committee and to be available to students - but then if they're not getting their publishing done, if they're not getting their academic work done then they're - they're penalized for that. How do you manage something like that?

HRABOWSKI: Well, let me say that we have worked to think through how to make sure that women and people of color are not overburdened with those responsibilities, because too often it is - it will be the women, it will be people of color who are spending so much time involved in advising and mentoring that they don't get the other work necessary for tenure and so we've worked to make sure that everyone is involved in that process. And so we want to make sure that junior faculty women or people of color are not spending too much time doing those things. But what that means is we work to encourage and support our male faculty members in getting involved with the work. So I will tell you that some of the best mentors for women and for people of color on my campus are white men. I mean, really, really effective mentors can be of any race and any gender and that's a part of what we have to say in America, because in some fields you don't have a lot of women or people of color. You need people in general who can get beyond race and gender, and talk about the work itself and help people feel good about who they are, and what group they come from. And - and that means talking about the issues of gender, and race, income, those kinds of things. And so we have the very honest conversations about those things and what has happened is, large numbers of my male colleagues, most of whom are white, quite frankly, are comfortable talking about race, or gender and science, engineering, or political science or whatever the area, and feel very good about having mentees of all races, men or women.

MARTIN: But you know to that end, a recent study from the University Of Colorado Leeds School Of Business found that while white men were rewarded for advocating on behalf of women and people of color, that could be negative effects for women and minority people who try to bring diversity to the ranks. That for women who advocated for other women were seen as less warm, and minorities who advocated for minorities were seen as less competent. What do you make of that?

HRABOWSKI: It depends on the culture of the institution and the leadership of that institution, and of a department for example, and the honesty of the conversations that people have had. The NSF ADVANCE program designed to bring in more women in science and engineering. We have one of those programs. Those programs are designed to get institutions to talk about the sticky issues that people don't want to talk about. That is, our people feeling comfortable in the department, women, people of color for example. And what other challenges that people face when thinking about who's a serious scientist, whether they're talking about women and their kids - can somebody be considered a serious scientist if she's talking about the problems she's had with childcare? These are issues that come up all the time, you see. And until you have those conversations, which we've had on our campus, you'd never know the assumptions sometimes that older guys can make about these issues.

MARTIN: Why do you feel that this - your career does not seem to have reflected those situations? And I wonder is it because you were so exceptional at such a young age. I mean, you finished college at the age of 19. You earned your doctorate at the age of 24. I mean, I wonder is it this your - your own kind of personal competence and personal scent of excellence kind of negated those questions, and for somebody - I'll just be honest - who isn't like you, how do they - what do they do? If they aren't so superior at such a young age that it puts all questions to rest.

HRABOWSKI: Let me tell you about wisdom. If I have any wisdom, it is the older, I get the more humble I become. Believe me, that's wisdom. Believe me, it has nothing to do with - that I was so great. If I've done well, it's because so many people have been so helpful to me. I mentioned some early mentors. I have had a variety of mentors, black and white, men and women. People don't make it by themselves. Somebody gives them support, and that's the point. How do we make sure that every person has that team of people who can give support, either in the institution or from a distance.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of this as a final thought, speaking of you know, setbacks, disappointments and so forth - do you have some wisdom about how to bounce back from those?

HRABOWSKI: Yeah, I do. I honestly believe that we learned a lot from listening to stories of other people who've been knocked down because each of us has been knocked down at one point or another. There are periods in my life when I have been knocked down by experiences and other kinds of institutions where people have not been particularly kind to me. And they've had an impact on my health or in my mood and the way I think about myself, and I've had to get others to help me get back up and to say, but I can do this. I don't know anyone who succeeded who has not had a period of when he or she has been knocked him. And I'll tell you what I tell my students when they've gotten a bad grade or when something has not gone well, or even my athletes, you know.

My friends who normally will always laugh even when I mention that I'm giving advice to athletes because on such a mega nerd you know, but it's about life - and I say this, that the true winner, the one who really will be successful in life is not somebody who's always gotten A's or who's always who's won, who's never had a problem. The true winner is someone who knows how to get back up when she's knocked down. When times are tough we get to know the character of a person. And each of us will go through tough times, professionally and personally, from health all the way to what happens at the job. And it's then that we draw deeply within and determine what keeps us going. And we draw on that, and we find strength in that, and we keep moving ahead. And it's that resilience that defines who we are.

MARTIN: Freeman Hrabowski is president of the University Of Maryland Baltimore County. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios for our final Wisdom Watch. Professor Hrabowski, Mr. President, thank you so much for speaking with us and thank you for your contributions to the program.

HRABOWSKI: Thank you for always inspiring us, and I know you will continue to do so. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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