Published June 18, 2021
As a UB PhD candidate in public health, Schomburg fellow Schuyler Lawson knew all too well how the lack of representation in schools often puts students of color and other underrepresented groups at a disadvantage.
He worried promising minority undergraduate students could be harmed by the “imposter syndrome” and other lingering doubts about whether they belong in their respective programs.
Luckily for Toniqua Lawrence, Lawson cared. A member of the Honors College, Lawrence graduated from UB in May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She acknowledges the influence Lawson’s example and guidance has had on her academic development.
“Schuyler has given me information to get involved in my community in academic and social ways that have enriched my experiences,” says Lawrence. “He has also invited me to the young Black professional network, which will definitely be useful in job/academic opportunities.
“In other academics, he has helped with graduate school searches and applications, as well as given tips and tricks on how to be successful as an underrepresented student,” she says. “I will definitely be taking his advice with me in the future, as well as in my other academic endeavors.”
Lawson describes the program as being “very impactful because underrepresented students benefit from receiving mentorship from other underrepresented students.”
If the mentor-mentee relationship is important to the UB community, nowhere is it more evident than the bond between Lawson and Lawrence. And it’s just one example in a continuing arrangement of Black and Latinx Schomburg fellows connecting with Black and Latinx Honors College students interested in graduate school.
The appreciation of the undergraduate students is well-matched by their elder classmates. These graduate students — members of the Arthur A. Schomburg Fellowship program for underrepresented students pursuing full-time graduate study at UB — remember what it was like when they could have used peer mentorship and are eager to change the dynamic.
“Through this program, gaps have been bridged,” says Schomburg fellow Sarah Quinones, currently pursuing her doctorate in epidemiology. “I have wholly embraced this program and what it may provide to students.”
Darius Melvin, academic adviser for the Honors College, says the program started this fall thanks to a collaboration with Elizabeth Colucci, director of the Office of Fellowships and Scholarships. Looking to support underrepresented Honors College upperclassmen as they formulate their post-graduation plans for career or graduate school, those putting together the program hoped that mentors would help expose Honors College scholars to post-graduate opportunities and be a supportive resource for their mentees.
“The Schomburg-Honors mentorship program connected Black and Latinx fellows in the Schomburg program with Black and Latinx honors college students who were interested in attending graduate school,” says Melvin. “Being critically underrepresented in both graduate school and the Honors College, respectively, we realized the importance of peer mentorship programs such as this.”
The Schomburg-Honors College mentoring program also aligns with the institutional recommendations from the President’s Council on Race.
Peer-mentoring programs like this one create a more welcoming and supportive environment for current UB students that will improve retention and graduation rates, according to UB administrators.
Lawson and Lawrence are not alone. Quinones, who has a particular interest in environmental determinants of health among marginalized and underrepresented populations, also can see real progress from her involvement in the program.
Quinones has worked with Alyssa Bert, who graduated in May with a BA in health and human services: early childhood studies from the Social Sciences Interdisciplinary Program.
“They often feel they have nowhere to go for help, or even feel comfortable seeking out help,” Quinones says of these students.
Bert fully realizes the advantage of working with a peer who has experienced similar challenges.
“It was impactful because it inspired me to do my own research in pursuing a PhD and broadened my horizon in a way,” she says.
So far, the Schomburg-Honors mentorship program has matched nine pairs of mentors and mentees since it began during the past fall semester. All meetings have been remote.
“We’re planning to continue this program for years to come, becoming even more robust over time,” says Melvin. “As we continue to recruit more high-achieving, underrepresented students, this mentorship program will be critical to not only our retention efforts, but our students’ post-baccalaureate success overall.”