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Dear Kerry Ann: Role Models Matter

Wednesday, May 25, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Allison Van Buren
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Originally posted on Inside Higher Ed.


Dear Kerry Ann,

As a new tenure-track professor, I like the idea of building a mentoring network instead of searching for one or two guru mentors in my department. I have been working to complete various aspects of your mentor map, but I keep getting stuck on the role models part. I’m not sure how to think about academic role models as an African-American scholar, because there are so few women of color on my campus. 

Am I thinking about this too narrowly? Why do I need role models as part of my mentoring network? And how can I find role models when there is so little diversity at my university?


Ruminating on Role Models

Dear Ruminating,

I’m pleased to learn that you’re consciously and intentionally building a large network of mentors. You are not alone in feeling confused about the role models segment of the mentor map. When I’ve had the opportunity to lead workshops on mentor mapping, it’s one of the areas that consistently cause faculty members to pause.

Participants typically have one of three responses: 1) they have no role models and struggle to come up with a single name, 2) they have many people they consider role models and can’t stop gushing about how awesome they are, or 3) they believe all__________ (fill in the blank with people like them) are role models and it’s counterproductive to name anyone specifically.

So let me clarify what I mean by a role model, why it’s important for you to identify several and how to go about identifying them.

Understand the Value of Role Models

I have simple criteria for identifying role models:

  • They are alive (i.e., living, breathing humans, not historical figures, fictional characters, fantasy creatures or action heroes).
  • They are people who are living their academic life in a way to which you aspire.
  • You could (theoretically) contact them for a targeted conversation.

I suggest these criteria because you want your role models to be real people who embody your definition of success -- not your department, university or discipline’s version of success. Why? Because you will get the most from them by learning what they do, how they do it and the types of choices they’ve made along the way.

For underrepresented scholars, role models have the power to open up previously unimagined possibilities. For example, when I was an undergraduate student, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. But it wasn’t until I encountered Professor Geneva Smitherman that the synapses in my brain formed the thought “I could be a professor.” Nobody ever told me I couldn’t be a professor, but I completed four years of college before I encountered an African-American female professor.

Dr. G (as she was known to her students) wasn’t any ordinary professor. She was brilliant, accomplished and fly, and she unapologetically identified as a scholar-activist. Just being in the presence of this woman -- braids flying and brilliance flowing -- rocked my world. Her presence opened my sense of what was possible for me. In other words, the fact that she existed meant that somebody like me could be a professor.

Just seeing her speak would have been enough, but I also became her undergraduate research assistant. Working for her directly helped me understand the ins and outs of professorial life, including how intellectual projects develop over time and how a scholar-activist manages her time between the campus and the community. Her generosity in sharing her path and encouraging me to pursue a Ph.D. taught me the most powerful lesson of all: I could do that, too!

This is why I encourage you to include role models as part of your mentoring network. Saying “everyone is a role model” or “I don’t have role models” stops people from identifying and claiming their aspirations. Both responses keep a person isolated in their own status quo. If nobody is doing anything even remotely related to what you aspire, then your goals will often feel impossible and unattainable, and may even be unrealistic for a full-time academic. And while there’s some truth to “every __________ is a role model,” I would consider both the validity of that statement as well as how saying that lets academics off the hook from naming what they truly desire.

Identify Who Your Role Models Are (and Why)

As an early-career faculty member, it’s important to know that the big things you aspire to can be done and that you can do them. So ask yourself, “Who is living their academic life in a way that I aspire to lead my own?” If you could imagine yourself operating at your full potential -- in the direction you want and in a way that would be fulfilling and amazing -- what would that look like?

If you’re drawing a blank or thinking, “Everyone is a role model,” then challenge yourself to get highly specific. And this summer is a great time to make a project of identifying your role models. You could journal your answers to the above questions. You could brainstorm with friends, family and/or colleagues. Or you could ask other people who their role models are for inspiration.

I recently asked a group of women scholars of color to name their role models as part of a master-class series that the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity is planning, and we received a list of nominations that is sure to spark your imagination, inspire your thinking about role models and help you get far more specific.

Once you have a few role models in mind, take time to learn about their career (i.e., read their faculty bio, review their CV and/or Google them). Depending on who they are, you may find articles that have been written about their career or interviews of them. That is incredibly valuable information because, as important as it is to identify role models, it’s even more important to learn how they got to where they are today.

Once you have identified several role models, you could contact them directly and ask for a brief conversation on a specific question. I melt whenever someone emails me and says, “You’re one of my role models because __________ and __________. Could I schedule a 20-minute call with you to learn how you __________?” I’m not saying every role model will respond, but if even one does, it’s worth the effort. And the added bonus is that you will surely make someone’s day by letting them know they are a role model of yours.

Don’t Limit Your Role Models

I don’t want to leave the impression that you should have one, and only one, perfect role model. Instead I encourage you to choose a variety of role models. And they don’t all have to be just like you demographically. In fact, it’s important to have a diverse array of role models that exemplify various aspects of your aspirations.

I also recommend you select both near and far role models. In other words, select some role models who are just two steps ahead of where you are now (your peers), as well as those who are far ahead of you (senior faculty members). Typically, your peer role models have done something specific that you admire (won a large grant, had amazing media coverage of their first book or had three kids while on the tenure track) and they tend to be more readily available to chat about their process. Those farther ahead on the path may embody the academic life you want to grow into more fully. Personally, I don’t hesitate when I have the opportunity to say, “You are one of my academic role models because __________.”

I hope it’s clear that you don’t have to restrict your role models to your own institution. At times, you may have an abundance of role models on your campus. I once was a faculty member in a department with Barbara Ransby and Beth Richie, and the chancellor was Paula Allen Meares! But at other times, you may find yourself without any role models on the campus. That’s OK. Just appreciate when you have them close and be expansive in your thinking when you don’t.

Identifying and connecting with role models is ultimately about you becoming the best version of your definition of success -- not becoming a mini version of somebody else. You are already a role model for your students (whether you know it or not). So why not start identifying people who are succeeding in a way you aspire to -- and then learn (directly or indirectly) how they got where they are today?

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


P.S. Keep your questions coming! I joyfully receive them at

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