Critical Mentoring is Custom Fitted to the Student

written by admin on April 2, 2020 in CEL Scholar and Diversity and Inclusion and Doing EL and Engaged Learning with no comments

by Buffie Longmire-Avital

There is no shortage of research on the importance of mentorship within high impact practices for students from underrepresented minority backgrounds. We know that mentorship builds resilience (Inman, 2020; Ramos 2019) and facilitates retention (Davis, 2017; Wilson et al., 2012), especially in STEM fields. However, mentoring is a broad concept, and I believe that a specific type of mentorship is necessary to produce the most transformative and equitable outcomes for historically underrepresented minority students (HURMS). That type of mentorship is critical mentorship.

Liou, Martinez, and Rotheram-Fuller (2016) defined critical mentoring to be a “reciprocal and reflexive process” that prepares the student (i.e., mentee) for a world that is historically inequitable and characterized by dynamic changes in social, political, economic, and power relationships. What is central to their conceptualization of critical mentoring is the role of the mentor, which they view as the amplifier of the mentee’s cultural capital. In simple terms, critical mentorship begins with a commitment from the mentor to want and actively champion the success of their student above all other outcomes.

Critical mentoring is custom fitted to the student. In a previous blog post, I discussed the importance of establishing or recognizing the diverse learning environment (DLE) proposed by Hurtado et al (2012). In their model for DLEs, they ask us all to acknowledge that the interaction between faculty and students takes place in, and is a function of, multiple contexts: socio-cultural history of the institution, policy, campus climate, the identities of the student and faculty members, as well as the spaces (classes, departments, co-curricular) the two inhabit both together and apart. In my understanding, critical mentoring is an expression of this acknowledgement. Critical mentoring is the ability to see the student – the entire student. I am currently picturing that moment when Neo truly sees the Matrix and all the glorious as well as frightening code that creates it. Neo simultaneously sees how he is both a part of and separate from the Matrix, but it is his ability to see all the coding that allows for him to manipulate it. I am not saying that critical mentoring will have you defying gravity and other laws of nature; I am stating that true critical mentoring is when you can see or at least acknowledge how various contexts and identities both surround and shape not just your student but yourself.

Critical mentoring also reflects the hybridization of two types of mentoring relationships: Instrumental and psychosocial. Darling, Bogat, Cavell, Murphy, and Sánchez (2006) used previous research to define instrumental as problem-focused or goal-oriented. Students receiving mentorship to complete an assignment or experience, such as a lab or project are probably getting instrumental support. Instrumental support would also include work on applications or career advice. Thus the purpose of the mentorship is a definable outcome. I would wager that most mentoring in Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) are built on an instrumental approach.

The psychosocial support is described as a focus on altering, adapting, and growing the personal qualities of the mentee. This process allows for the centering of well-being, celebrating, and the nurturing of student capital. In my opinion the most beneficial or impactful psychosocial support would come from small if not one-on-one relationships. Psychosocial support is not just giving your student training or skills but working together to overcome obstacles and challenges that are both tangible and intangible. I typically meet with my research students for 90 minutes at least once a week and then have virtual meetings/check-ins with them throughout the rest of the week. I would say one-third of every 90-minute meeting is a catch-up on life. Sometimes it begins with a student rushing into my office and promptly blurting out, “Dr. L-A, do I have a story for you!!” or “Dr. L-A, you wouldn’t believe.” Other times it begins with me asking, “Seriously, how are you,” or “Something is happening, what’s going on?” These questions are often followed by an immediate exhale and then the release of whatever has been plaguing them. This third of an hour is not just for venting frustrations; it is just as likely to be used to reflect on achievements and victories. This time is not about the project or task (directly), but it is about them, their narrative, and the respect I have for the various spaces and contexts they must navigate through prior to walking through my door.

This time is not about the project or task (directly) but it is about them, their narrative, and the respect I have for the various spaces and contexts they must navigate through prior to walking through my door.

Critical mentoring acknowledges that the relationship you are co-constructing with your student(s) does not happen in isolation. Yes, you must acknowledge their DLE, but particularly when working with HURMS, you must actively be prepared to guide them through and to other parts of the collegiate experience. Scisney-Matlock and Matlock (2001) reflected on the need for faculty to serve as “valuable resources for students of color.” Again, students are thrust into a collegiate world and not all come in with the same amount or types of capital. As a faculty mentor our goal is not just to make sure that our students are successfully completing the work we are collaborating with them on it; is also to make sure that they are successfully integrating and accessing the rest of the campus. It is easy for faculty to become research or scholarship silos, but our students are not and will never be those silos. I find myself trouble-shooting with students and then helping them make connections. Those connections are even more valuable when I can point students towards someone else who is also critically aware and is an effective ally and or advocate.

Yes, we are all limited when it comes to time, but establishing connections with student affairs and other campus offices/divisions or support staff that provide resources and help for HURMS is a crucial step in generating and maintaining a mentorship framework that includes HURMS across the HIPs. It also reinforces the students’ belief that they can trust you. Scisney-Matlock and Matlock (2001) prioritize trust between the HURMS mentee and mentor. My students know that when I say I will do it, it will happen. When an individual is a member of the minority in a historically majority context, asking for help is an act of vulnerability and courage. You want to know that in disclosing the need for help you can trust that the other person will do everything they can to answer your call. A critical mentorship must have trust from both sides. Taking the time to develop that trust is essential. This trust also extends to your commitment to complete or at least progress the project or research in a timely manner. I’ll admit, whenever my students ask me to do things, I get a kick out of channeling my inner Olivia Pope and I have to actively fight the desire to respond back “It’s handled.”

Finally, Scisney-Matlock and Matlock (2001) remind us all that actions speak louder than words and continuity matters. The commitment you have to working with HURMS is not measured just by your engagement with HURMS in research or other HIPs, it is also measured through your engagement on campus and in your classes. When we apply critical race theory to education, we accept that course content can either challenge or reinforce the systems. Do you need to decolonize your syllabus and assignments, center voices and experiences in your classes that are not only a reinforcement of the Western, White, industrialized, and economically developed perspective? Anyone can share or write a post to stake claim to an inclusive persona but how are you practicing inclusive pedagogy? How does your class and its content signal to students – especially HURMS – that you value cultural capital and an experience epistemology?

Critical mentoring is a radical act of seeing and is, to me, how we sustain the engagement of HURMS in HIPs. In my next blog post I will outline my framework for critical mentoring.


  • Darling, Nancy, G. Anne Bogat, Timothy A. Cavell, Susan Elaine Murphy, and Bernadette Sánchez. “Gender, ethnicity, development, and risk: Mentoring and the consideration of individual differences.” Journal of Community Psychology 34, no. 6 (2006): 765-780.
  • Davis, Cheron H. “Factors for Effective Recruitment, Development, Mentorship, and Retention of Education Doctoral Students.” In Professional Education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, pp. 47-56. Routledge, 2017.
  • Hurtado, S., Alvarez, C. L., Guillermo-Wann, C., Cuellar, M., & Arellano, L. (2012). A model for diverse learning environments. In Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (pp. 41-122). Springer, Dordrecht.
  • Inman, Arpana G. “Culture and Positionality: Academy and Mentorship.” Women & Therapy 43, no. 1-2 (2020): 112-124.
  • Liou, Daniel D., Antonio Nieves Martinez, and Erin Rotheram-Fuller. ““Don’t give up on me”: critical mentoring pedagogy for the classroom building students’ community cultural wealth.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 29, no. 1 (2016): 104-129.
  • Ramos, Bianca Natalie. “Moving from Access to Success: How First-Generation Students of Color Can Build Resilience in Higher Education through Mentorship.” The Vermont Connection 40, no. 1 (2019): 9.
  • Scisney‐Matlock, Margaret, and John Matlock. “Promoting understanding of diversity through mentoring undergraduate students.” New directions for teaching and learning 2001, no. 85 (2001): 75-84.
  • Wilson, Zakiya S., Lakenya Holmes, Karin Degravelles, Monica R. Sylvain, Lisa Batiste, Misty Johnson, Saundra Y. McGuire, Su Seng Pang, and Isiah M. Warner. “Hierarchical mentoring: A transformative strategy for improving diversity and retention in undergraduate STEM disciplines.” Journal of Science Education and Technology 21, no. 1 (2012): 148-156.


Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.

How to cite this post:

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. (2020, April 2). Critical Mentoring is Custom Fitted to the Student [Blog Post]. Retrieved from