A Q&A with University of St. Thomas mentoring expert Dr. Buffy Smith


OVPDEMA: What was your path to researching mentorship for students from underserved communities?

Dr. Smith: I grew up in the inner city of Milwaukee, so I come from a low-income, under-resourced background from multiple generations of poverty. I knew my mother and my grandmother had high expectations for me, but in terms of going to college and understanding that process, they were not able to assist me. Some of my personal journey was the major motivation behind the research that I do, because I know there are numerous young scholars coming from under-resourced backgrounds, who, if they are provided with a more structured pathway of how to enter college and then to navigate through the land mines of college, they will do well. I was motivated to find ways where we can be intentional of making those pathways more explicit.

OVPDEMA: What motivated you to research how scholars from diverse backgrounds, including first-generation college students, can be successful academically?

Dr. Smith: Sometimes we tell our scholars, ‘Just work hard,’ and we think of it in terms of them completing a particular assignment. But if they don’t know how to even understand the instructions of the assignment, they’re not going to perform at their best. Scholars have to master the content, but they also have to master the ability to go to their professors to find out their expectations to be successful in particular classes. We really have to help scholars understand that they need to have these conversations with all of their professors in order for them to be successful.

You have to build social capital with each of your professors, moving beyond being a survivor in class to a place where you’re actually thriving and have a high-quality relationship—even them asking you to do research with them and when you’re not in the class, they’re thinking about scholarship opportunities for you. The reality for me came when I saw so many bright, hard-working young scholars who were working really hard, but they were not maximizing all of their opportunities. Part of it was they were not understanding all of the expectations, norms, and values that were not written on the syllabus. They were trying to do everything that was written on the syllabus, but there were a lot of things that they were being judged and evaluated on that were not on the syllabus, yet had an impact on their performance in class.

Some of my personal journey was the major motivation behind the research that I do, because I know there are numerous young scholars coming from under-resourced backgrounds, who, if they are provided with a more structured pathway of how to enter college and then to navigate through the land mines of college, they will do well.

OVPDEMA: What do you hope IU Bloomington students, faculty, and staff will take away from your presentations?

Dr. Smith: First-year scholars from under-resourced backgrounds should really be mindful that they are going to need to be proactive in creating a team of mentors. They can be assigned first-year advisers or mentors, but they shouldn’t rely on just that one individual to meet all of their academic needs. They are going to have to be honest about what they know or don’t know about how to navigate the terrain of higher education, so reaching out early and often is a key. If you ask questions, that’s not a reflection of your lack of knowledge; actually, that’s a way in which you can reflect intellectual curiosity, so even how they think of asking questions is critical. Rather than thinking that if you ask questions, you’re going to expose yourself as an imposter and you don’t belong, if you’re silent, you’re going to suffer in silence.

If you have not demonstrated that you’re fully engaged by asking a lot of questions, then it’s easy for people to ignore that you might be in need. Then, you’re going to college, not being mentored, and not receiving the guidance you need to thrive. It becomes a matter of just survival and once again, that’s the one thing we don’t want any scholar to go through, but certainly scholars who are coming from more underserved communities.On a good mentoring team, all of those mentors don’t have to reflect your particular racial, socioeconomic background or gender. A good mentor just has to be someone who is willing to take the time to be intentional about sharing the knowledge or resources that they have with you. That is a skill that I hope we spend more time nurturing with our young scholars and let them know that there are caring faculty and staff that might not reflect your racial, ethnic, class, or gender background. But if they’re open and they’re committed to your success, be open to receive that assistance.

OVPDEMA: What is the foundation of the Dougherty Family College, the two-year institution that started classes this fall on the campus of the University of St. Thomas?

Dr. Smith: The mission of the Dougherty Family College is embedded within the University of St. Thomas mission. This associate of the arts degree is primarily geared toward scholars who are coming from underserved communities, who have an interest and a college-readiness mindset to continue on to their four-year degree. Our young scholars will earn an associate of the arts degree, but the goal is to not think of it as a terminal degree, but as foundational framework they will need to advance, so they will thrive when they enter a four-year institution. We don’t look at the ACT or SAT scores, because we know the research indicates the racially embedded bias in those scores.

But we do have all of our scholars go through an interview process, and what we’re really looking for is for students to have a college-readiness mindset. They demonstrate resiliency, determination, and have the work ethic to be successful, but maybe they didn’t perform their best in high school. It’s a way to give promising young scholars a second chance, so they’re not just being judged by standardized test scores. Certainly if they have resiliency and have been able to create coping strategies for multiple challenges in their lives, then our jobs as educators at Dougherty Family College is just to help them know that they’re coming into Dougherty with assets and we’re just going to help them build upon the assets they already have from their home culture, and just teach them about the academic culture of higher education and help them navigate that. that’s why intensive mentoring is embedded inside of our associate of arts degree.

On a good mentoring team, all of those mentors don’t have to reflect your particular racial, socioeconomic background or gender. A good mentor just has to be someone who is willing to take the time to be intentional about sharing the knowledge or resources that they have with you.

OVPDEMA: What is your role at Dougherty Family College?

Dr. Smith: I serve as the associate dean of academics, and I also teach the first-year seminar experience course, called ‘Leading and Serving.’ My role and responsibility is to make sure our faculty and academic team has an understanding of culturally responsive pedagogy, because we’re making sure that we deliver rigorous academic content, but we also want to deliver it in a way that is responsive to the multiple cultural backgrounds of our students. Providing the faculty mentoring for our team to make sure they can deliver their instruction and their content in a way that our young scholars will be able to receive it. I help with the curriculum issues, making sure that our curriculum is comparable to our four-year program, in terms of the academic rigor. It’s similar course content; the delivery of the instruction is different.

I work on assessment of our curriculum, in terms of being the instructor of the first-year seminar experience course. That is the course where I am able to teach all of our young scholars some basic competencies in financial literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, and also the college-going skills, such as note-taking, study skills, and trying to help them understand the value and the purpose of developing their mentoring relationships with their faculty members. All of the competencies our young scholars will need to thrive in college, we try to make sure there’s a topic that’s covered in our first-year seminar experience. It’s a way to assess how they’re performing in classes, and then I can address those issues on a larger scale with the entire student body during the first-year seminar experience.