I write this statement regarding SisterMentors from the vantage point of an original member of the program and one of the second set of graduates. In 1997 when I attended the first meeting, my situation was unique. Not only was I a graduate student enrolled in a University of Maryland Ph.D. program, but I was already a tenured associate professor at Howard University and a mature adult who had been a working professional journalist for more than two decades.
The degree, I had decided, would offer me more options for my work in the academy as a scholar and would provide me with the tools to extend my study of the production process. Having worked in the media for many years, I was used to deadlines and was familiar with the basic techniques of self-motivation necessary for graduate study. But teaching full time at one institution while I pursued the Ph.D. at another meant that it had become increasingly difficult for me to give priority time to the degree. While I had been taking courses, my deadlines had been externally imposed — making it clear what my schedule of work was to be. When the course work ended and the research and writing began in earnest, things changed.
By the time I heard via email from a colleague that a support group was beginning, I was completing my comprehensive exams and desperately searching for ways to remain focused on the goal at hand. Immediately the group answered my prayers. From the outset we each decided that we each would set realistic goals and that we would each hold each other accountable for what we said each month. On more than a few occasions, I am convinced that I pushed myself to complete what I had committed to do during a previous meeting so that I would be able to save face with my colleagues.
The pivotal point came for me when the group devoted an entire meeting to the review and discussion of my dissertation prospectus. My sister scholars went over my document with the proverbial “fine tooth comb,” questioning my statements, my organization, and my theoretical framework, and offering interdisciplinary suggestions to help shape the proposal I was preparing for my graduate committee. They literally tore my proposal apart and urged me to rewrite it, giving voice to the stories I had articulated verbally. In our meetings I had described the role of eight African America women in the production of a radio series which was at the center of my research. But only peripherally in the prospectus had I alluded to those women. The group’s interrogatives prompted me to give priority to the production women and their work; to state clearly my research intentions; and to formulate essential research questions.
As a result of my colleagues’ focused attention, I was able to apply for and got a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship which provided me with research and writing time. Consequently, one year from the date of my prospectus defense, I had completed the writing of my dissertation and had submitted it to my committee for review.
SisterMentors helped at every stage: individual members had proofed and edited my entire dissertation, provided suggestions and short-cuts, and assisted in the preparation of dissertation graphics.
At my dissertation defense, in an unprecedented action, my committee required me to make no changes in the document. At graduation, the dissertation was selected to receive the Bode prize for the Best Dissertation in American Studies at the University.
I have no doubt that all these honors — as well as the completion of the degree itself — are linked to the undeniable generosity of my sister scholars and to the existence SisterMentors.