I am delighted to write this letter on behalf of the SisterMentors Dissertation Support Groups for Women of Color (“SisterMentors”). Dr. Shireen Lewis’ efforts, in founding and guiding the growth and development of an expanding circle of SisterMentors groups, reflect that rare combination of inspiration and pragmatism that leads to the creation of vibrant, lasting institutions.
I met Dr. Lewis in the fall of 1998, as the original SisterMentors group was having its first anniversary. I had taken a leave of absence from a university teaching job to complete my dissertation, relocated to Washington, D.C., and sought to join the group. However, the existing group was full, and Dr. Lewis worked with me to find sufficient members to initiate a second group in January 1999.
What was most impressive about the process was the degree of care and attention Dr. Lewis and the members of the initial group had put into understanding how their process worked so that the new group could benefit from their accumulated experience. Thus the second group was able to begin with a set of carefully worked out guidelines and assumptions that the first group had developed in addition to their own dissertation-completion work.
For many of us who are pioneers in our families and our communities in entering graduate education, the process that Dr. Lewis has developed for dissertation completion is essential. The SisterMentors’ emphasis on goal-setting and group diversification enables members to demystify the dissertation process in all its aspects, from research to writing, from committee relations to funding, and from defending to life after graduation …
As important as these concrete steps towards dissertation completion are, it is the less tangible effect of being in dialogue with other women of color in this process which is perhaps the highest value of this program. Many of us are the only or one of the very few people of color in our respective programs; many programs are only beginning to consider the effects of multiculturalism in their disciplines and practices.
In my own situation, after graduation, a faculty member in my program noted that while I had the highest GRE scores they had ever seen, they had little confidence in my ability to finish. In such an atmosphere, the peermentoring that SisterMentors provides is often the essential component that tips the balance towards graduation rather than just walking away.
Dr. Lewis’ founding of the SisterMentors groups is in the tradition of African and African Diaspora women’s voluntary associations. However, she is also providing an unpaid service to institutions of higher education that are seeking to diversify their faculties but haven’t fully addressed the pipeline issue.
The number of Ph.Ds that SisterMentors has produced in the three years of its existence rivals that of many large institutions, and many of us would testify that we would not be here if SisterMentors were not there.
The ongoing self-evaluation of SisterMentors has created a model for establishing such groups both in the Washington, D.C. area and across the country. My wish for SisterMentors and Dr. Lewis would be for a secure financial base for compensating the performance of administrative and organizational tasks that keep the groups going … and for opportunities for Dr. Lewis and other SisterMentors’ participants to present the success of this program to relevant audiences of University administrators, faculties, and graduate students.
I hope that these few words of support encourage others to offer material support, publicity, or participation in the SisterMentors project.