SisterMentors was featured in the March 2007 issue of Inside Higher Ed Read full article Here
When you think of a Ph.D., “you think of a man standing in front of the room teaching,” says Roxie Jairrels, a high school senior from Alexandria, Va. who hopes to push that preconception until it pops. “I’m going for my bachelor’s and then my master’s and if it were possible to get my Ph.D. in photography, I would go for that. Even if they create it when I’m 40, I’ll do it.”
Among the middle and high school girls in SisterMentors, few words prove more powerful than that collection of three letters: “P,” “H,” “D.” They’re reminded of the word’s significance by doctoral candidates at least monthly, and the old-timers in the program, like Ruhama Yared, a 10th-grader originally from Ethiopia, can recite what the letters mean by heart: “After your master’s degree, you write a dissertation, a book, and people call you a doctor,” Yared says.
But don’t be fooled. These aren’t professors’ kids, accustomed to talk of Derrida and deconstruction at the dinner table. Instead, these are largely low-income students, first-generation college hopefuls who benefit from a unique D.C.-area program working to nudge girls and women of color through the notoriously leaky academic pipeline at all levels.
SisterMentors will send its first group of five high school students off to college this September, just as the organization, which started as a dissertation support group in 1997 and expanded to mentor young girls in 2001, celebrates its 10th anniversary. The essence of the program is simple, but significant: Female minority doctoral candidates living and working in the D.C. area while they write their dissertations benefit from mentoring one another through a long (they’ll say prolonged) process. They then “pay it forward,” so to speak, in their work mentoring the middle and high school girls (many of whom, it’s worth noting, are avid young volunteers themselves). More minority girls go to college, with the hope that more minority women will be there ready to teach them.
To date, 25 women of color have completed their dissertations with the help of SisterMentors, and college acceptance letters for the girls are rolling on in: thick envelopes from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Duke, Hampton, Radford and Virginia Commonwealth Universities and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“If we are going to tell girls in our program that they should go to college, we should be providing them with professors who look like them standing in front of the classroom,” says Shireen K. Lewis, a Trinidad native with a doctorate in French from Duke University who founded SisterMentors in 1997. The program exists, Lewis says, on one level because although 50.9 percent of the total doctorates awarded in 2004 went to women, only 11.2 percent of those went to women of color (numbers she compiled based on National Science Foundation statistics).
On another level, SisterMentors exists because the pipeline starts leaking well before many girls even learn what a Ph.D. is. The disparities at the Ph.D. level, Lewis says, can be traced not only to a lack of funding to support the dissertation phase — the working women in the program don’t have the luxury to focus solely on their dissertations and in many cases work for nonprofits — but also the lack of mentoring throughout the entire educational process.
“Ph.D.’s tackling social problems,” says Lewis, who has a law degree from the University of Virginia in addition to her doctorate. “Everyone hears about children dropping out of school, that there are low graduation rates among children of color. We said, â€˜We can do something about it.'”
“I think Ph.D.’s have a special role to play.”