We recently held the sixth annual BME Early Career Researcher Conference at the University of West London (UWL), where I am an associate professor of biomedical science. This year, it was co-hosted with King’s College London and there were 400 delegates, both in-person and online, with some from as far afield as the US and South Africa. I founded this event with the aim of addressing the lack of diversity in higher education and empowering young BAME individuals through talks, networking and mentoring. The idea came about, in part, as a result of my experience as a young black woman at university in the 1990s.
Back then, I was one of just five black students studying biochemistry at King’s. Not that it bothered me at the time – it was a privilege to be there. I was born at King’s College Hospital. My mother, in particular, was proud of anything to do with King’s.
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A deputy headteacher in Nigeria, she always instilled in us the importance of working hard and asking questions. Yet I would never raise my hand in the lecture hall for fear of saying something wrong. I was the one who always spoke to the lecturers afterwards. Despite the pride I felt at being part of this incredible institution, I was struggling – and not brave enough to admit it.
During my freshers’ week, there were so many opportunities, including hundreds of societies, but I didn’t really understand how they would benefit me. I feared that social activities would be a distraction from my studies.
We had several modules each term, and there were so many books the lecturers recommended, I thought that to pass my course I would need to purchase every one of them, but there was no way I could have used them all. I would study on my own and spend endless hours trying to understand concepts that were new to me.
When reflecting on my time at King’s, I’m certain it would have been extremely beneficial to have had a peer mentor – someone who looked like me, who understood my challenges and was familiar with my background and lived experiences; someone I could turn to and who could help guide me on my university journey.
Peer mentoring, on the most basic level, involves a senior student (mentor) supporting someone more junior (mentee). It would likely be a final-year or second-year student supporting a first-year student, helping them navigate any challenges they might experience while on the same course.
Had I had a peer mentor, I would have learned the benefits of societies – in particular, the importance of improving interpersonal skills and building networks and the role this could play in developing my future career.
Had I had this support, from someone who had already gone through the process, they could have also advised me on books, explained concepts and even guided me on effective ways to study and manage time. This could have really helped raise my confidence and self-esteem, which I lacked. I could have learned from their direct experience: did they also struggle with their confidence or with a sense of belonging at the university and, if so, how did they overcome it?
Today, as an associate professor at UWL, I am pleased that as soon as students start their degree, they are encouraged to request a peer mentor. Many Year 2 and Year 3 students have already volunteered to mentor freshers. I relish seeing this relationship playing out among my own students within our school and witnessing how this support can help new students flourish.
The beautiful thing about such an initiative is the ability to request a mentor from a specific group, such as a BAME student, a disabled student, an international student or a student who is a parent or carer. The feedback has been very positive, with one student saying: “I see it as a privilege to have a peer mentor. It was an amazing feeling to have had support when I found university life the hardest. They gave great advice and reassuring words when I was on the verge of giving up. Peer mentoring, I believe, is so essential, and I would recommend it to every student at uni.”
Despite such progress, the lack of black professors in academia and the BAME attainment gap continues to seriously bother me. How can this be? What are we missing? How long do we need to wait before change can be seen? It has been well publicised that of 22,855 professors in UK universities, just 119 are black men and 41 are black women.
Many black academics leave in the early stages of their careers, whether due to discrimination, being overlooked in favour of a non-black person and huge competition for a relatively small pool of jobs. This then reduces the pool of black talent that would, in later years, be competing for professorships at universities across the country.
Of course, I’m aware that peer mentoring alone won’t solve issues of underrepresentation, but there are a number of steps that can help BAME students feel more supported. It’s important to listen to people’s experiences and for them to be in an environment where those experiences can be shared. It’s my firm belief that peer mentoring will help encourage a more positive experience along these lines for BAME students which, in turn, will encourage them to stay in academia.
But how does one get a peer mentoring scheme off the ground in practice? Your first port of call should be the student support team, who would likely be responsible for organising peer mentoring. Promoting success stories of peer mentoring will encourage both students to volunteer to be mentors and those wishing to receive support to come forward to be a mentee.
Both mentors and mentees should complete an expression of interest form, which will help significantly with the matching process. And they will need training – both mentor and mentee. Mentors will learn how to be a good mentor, including which questions to ask and which areas will typically require support. Meanwhile, mentees need to understand what can be expected of your peer mentor.
Ideally, mentoring relationships should last one academic year and be checked, via meetings, every quarter to confirm that all is going well. On completion towards the end of the academic year, all mentors should be rewarded with a volunteering certificate, which helps round off the experience and provide a tangible benefit for the mentors who have given up their time, as well as the mentees who will hopefully feel a greater sense of belonging and confidence in their new surroundings.
Bernadine Idowu is an associate professor of biomedical science at the University of West London.
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