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It Matters: Building Representation in Mentoring Relationships

On January 20, 2021, Kamala Harris was sworn in as Vice President, becoming the first woman, the first Black American, and the first South Asian American to hold the office. The importance of the moment was not lost – across social media, posts celebrating this historical event peppered the internet with a familiar ring of, “she looks like me!” Moments like this show that representation matters and it’s especially important for youth from underrepresented groups to see people who look like them doing great things, such as engaging in the community (like being a mentor!), excelling in school and the workplace, and even making history.

Siettah Parks, a former Program Manager for CollegeSpring, states, “Our society tends to subscribe to a singular image of success in school: a specific way that people should look, talk, and behave. This image often excludes people of color. In educational contexts, representation means that young people who belong to groups that have historically been underrepresented in higher education have role models and examples that look like them or have similar backgrounds and experiences.”

Parks notes that mentors can encourage representation by being authentic and genuine, “connect with [your] mentees by showing pride for the things that others may not understand, including aspects of [your] culture or personal interests. I enjoyed spending time with my mentor because she was real. She never tried to be anyone else.” By being yourself, you are modeling self-acceptance with your mentees, which allows for them to feel comfortable being authentic in return. The conversations and activities you share with your mentees can also demonstrate the importance of representation. For example, you can read stories or watch videos with your mentees featuring characters from backgrounds or life experiences similar to your mentee’s.

Lastly, Parks states that “role models must maintain high expectations of their mentees, despite the hardships mentees may face. It may feel better to be more lenient or allow students to underperform when they have had a hard day or struggle with their work. In reality, this only sends the message that students don’t have to try in the face of challenges.” While we want to have fun with our mentees and allow them space to be kids, it’s also important to encourage their success. Work with your mentee to set personal and academic goals they hope to accomplish. Help them build resilience when they face challenges and celebrate with them when they triumph.

Representation matters because it shapes how underrepresented groups are viewed and how people from those groups view themselves. By creating a safe, authentic space for our mentees to celebrate their identity and explore their full potential, we can help our mentees achieve.

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