Trevor Favor is a mechanical engineering student at the start of his senior year at the College of Engineering and Technology at Indiana University - Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI). Favor is an African-American transfer student working to turn around his academic performance. His former school didn't have the kind of environment or support he needed to be successful, and his grades showed it. Favor wanted to complete his degree but couldn't stay focused, so during IUPUI's admission process, Favor was referred to Patrick Gee, his mentor.
Trevor credits Gee with helping him find ways to deal with every aspect of his education, from choosing classes to transforming challenges into opportunities. One such opportunity is often characterized as a soft skill — making an effort to be personable and engage with other people. As a minority student, this can be the first and most critical step to a successful transition into an engineering program.
"I went to a majority white school when I was in high school. It doesn't make the coursework harder, but there is a comfort level that's different when you go into the classroom and you're the only minority student there," Favor says. "Because it's such a hard major, you want to be able to connect, you want to be able to relate and sometimes you can't always do that."
Gee believes every aspect of a student's life will impact his education in some way. Mentoring is about addressing the whole student, not just making sure he knows how to build a solid resume and to dress for an interview. As an engineering lecturer, academic advisor and minority mentor to engineering and technology students, Gee witnesses first-hand the struggles these young men face to fit in and adapt to an environment with people who come from a different culture.
Many universities and colleges are making a concerted effort to bring minorities into their engineering programs, but the road is slow going. The National Science Foundation reported in 2008 that 74 percent of all engineers are white males. Asian males make up 14 percent, Hispanics males account for 6 percent and black males only 4 percent.
Becoming comfortable as "the only one" in a classroom or specific area of study creates additional challenges for minority students. This, combined with the rigorous coursework, can create barriers that are insurmountable without support. That is why Gee believes mentors help the students stay in school.
"The mentor is the academic advisor, as well was the technical support person, as well as the cheerleader," he says. "How many people are in the classroom that look like you? How many faculty members are there [who] look like you? You may be one of many, so then do you stay in the environment — or do you go back home?"
Gee, an engineering graduate of IUPUI, understands that struggle. He returned to school after being in a business setting because he wanted to help "create engineers," not "inanimate products." He believes that's best done by helping students adjust to the challenges of college while exploring career options and preparing them for the post-graduation transition to further education or a career — the traditional role of mentors.
"Sometimes you need to hear that the paper plan says take 17 credit hours but the paper plan never asks you, 'Do you like to bowl once a week?' And if you do that, then you're either going to take less and bowl once a week or you're not going to bowl," Gee says. "Bowling is an example of family requirement, is an example of personal requirement, is an example of work requirement."
A mentor can facilitate a minority student's successful transitioning into an engineering career. And those mentors don't always wear suits. Michael Williams, an electrical-engineering student graduating from IUPUI this spring, says he was able to reach graduation in large part due to his peers. He credits the informal mentoring he received from other engineering students for helping him find tutoring resources and guidance on how to address the workload in specific classes.
"If a parent tells you not to do something, you go ahead and do it. If your friend tells you not to do it, you're not going to think about it. You're not going to touch it. That's the really nice thing about having your peer mentor — if there's ever any question that you have about campus life, that's where you go," says Williams.
Williams credits Gee with inspiring him, Favor and others to develop a formal peer mentoring program for minority students as a way to developing mentoring recourses at IUPUI.
"I took a mentor role with younger students for freshman and sophomore students, and working with that's been great," he says. "I don't think I'd be doing as well if I didn't have the mentors because they help me navigate where I need to go for help."
'A need for special mentoring'
Ruendy Carrillo, an Hispanic student of mechanical engineering in his junior year at IUPUI, found his mentor by participating in a program designed to reach out to kids while they are still thinking about what they want to study in college.
"The first time that I met Mr. Gee was from high school," Carrillo says. "I came with my high school professor to a college visit. ... He told me about a summer program, so I participated. And every time that I have a question I go to his office and he helps me solve which classes to take, how to manage my time and everything."
The summer program Carrillo credits with his successful involvement with mentoring is Minority Engineering Advancement Program (MEAP), an outreach program of IUPUI that serves as an introduction to technology fields. The site describes MEAP as a weeklong summer camp for sixth to 11th graders that "provides an opportunity for students (who) are interested in math and science to explore educational and career paths for engineering and technology fields."
From that early introduction, Carrillo has benefitted from Gee's guidance on how to manage his time and utilize extracurricular activities to help him achieve his goals.
"He helps me prioritize my classes. Usually we meet in his office to go over a semester plan to follow in order to keep in line, in order to not fall behind," Carrillo says. "Right now I'm in ASME, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and SHPE, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers."
Gee has what he calls a "check list" for guiding some of his interactions with his students. Did you go to all your classes? Did you complete all of your assignments? He meets with his students regularly so that he can get to know their needs and tailor his approach. But he also keeps an open-door policy so that any student can talk to him as needed.
Gee is proud of the work his school has accomplished with mentoring minority students, but they aren't done yet.
"There is still a need for special mentoring of minority students, and that is due to disparities in various areas," he says. "When you have a bit of disparity — and I think we're doing better than some other places, some other entities — it almost becomes something that the students understand they have a role to play as peer mentors, because firsthand they're experiencing any disparity that might come up. You want to warn them. You want to caution them. You want to help them, because you want it better for them than you had it."