Mentorship and Safe Spaces: Meeting The Unique Needs of African American Women Seeking Advanced Degrees // Candyce Burke

Image from

“Lifting As We Climb,” is the motto adopted by the National Association of Colored Women in the late 1800s, and has been both my personal and professional aspiration. Of particular personal interest for me in terms of research has been to consider how African American females in higher education settings navigate the intersections of their gender, racial, and professional identity. The African American female experience of “Otherness” often results in her ability to develop and take on multiple perspectives within the scholarly setting. Although often thought to be disadvantageous, this experience of living within the margins is also valuable to successfully maneuvering these shifting identities.  Mentorship, building community, and sharing knowledge are buffers that facilitate healthy navigation through the process of identity development for African American females in higher education.

Mentoring has been identified as a very influential factor in the academic and career success of individuals in continuing education. Research by Patton and Harper (2003) suggests that mentorship is of particular importance because, “emerging scholars and practitioners who intend to excel in their respective professions have the opportunity to make connections and learn how to successfully maneuver within their areas of specialization” (p.67).  Mentoring for Black women in graduate school was found to be particularly challenging in a study conducted by Patton and Harper (2003) due to the fact that these women find it difficult to locate suitable mentors with whom to build such connections. This is largely based on the fact that the definition and scope of mentorship was found to be a bit more diverse for Black females. According to Patton and Harper, “most traditional definitions of mentoring barely scratch the surface in the context of African American women” (Patton & Harper, 2003, p. 72).  In their study, Black females were shown to need not only academic guidance and career advice from their mentors but nurturing, mothering, culturally relevant counsel, and the ability to share personal issues as well as academic and career concerns with their mentors in confidence.

Findings also suggest that African American women benefit from “safe spaces” in which they can discuss microaggressions and garner support to continue to thrive in academia. Research on the identity development and intersectionality of Black females has consistently shown that it is beneficial for these women to be able to identify and access places in which their objectification as the “Other” is minimized. In fact, it is in these safe places that Black women can find reprieve and resist the negative impact that can come with navigating their multiple identities. According to Alfred (2001), “the use of a safe space was found to be a method by which the women preserve their constructed definition of the self when the environment becomes disconcerting” (p.118).  One crucial component of safe places is the sharing of narratives and experiences with other Black women. Also, it is during this time that women have opportunities for challenging oppression on both personal and structural levels. This practice of alliance making needs to occur on different levels both internal and external to academic environment (Burke, Cropper, & Harrison, 2000) and can be beneficial for Black women as they develop the sense that they are not alone in their experiences.

With this post I hope to illustrate the invaluable importance of providing safe spaces and mentorship opportunities for students seeking advanced degrees. Although this research mainly focuses on the experiences of African American women, I believe that the sentiment can be extrapolated to illustrate a need for the presence of mentors from other minority and marginalized groups as well. When a student is able to feel safe and supported in their educational environment, they are more likely to thrive and become a viable asset to that community. To me, as an African American doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, it is a non-negotiable act of service that I willing accept to be a mentor and provide safe spaces to offer the knowledge I have acquired to any other student or individual thinking about becoming a student. Personally, having a mentor and being able to have safe spaces to share and conceptualize my experiences has been something that has equipped me with strength, courage, and tools to navigate my journey in higher education.

If you are in the position to offer support to a student, especially if you are a member of a minority or marginalized group, whether in a formal capacity or informal, please consider doing so. The success of the next generation of minority leaders in academia and beyond may very well depend on this!

Alfred, M. V. (2001). Expanding theories of career development: adding the voices of African American women in the white academy. Adult Education Quarterly, 51(2), 108-127.
Burke, B., Cropper, A., &  Harrison, P. (2000). Real or imagined—Black women’s experiences in the academy. Community, Work & Family, 3(3), 297-310 .

Patton, L. D., & Harper, S. R. (2003). Mentoring relationships among African American women in graduate and professional schools. New Directions for Student Services, (104), 67-78.

Written by: Candyce Burke

No comments:

Post a Comment