In recognition of Black History Month, we asked Dr. Wynetta Lee, Professor, School Administration Program and PI of the IES-funded Research Institute for Scholars of Equity (RISE) Pathways training program at North Caroline Central University (NCCU), to discuss the roles of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and mentoring in the development of the next generation of education researchers.
In this photo, RISE fellows visit VEST, the University of Virginia’s IES-funded predoctoral training program. Pictured in the front row starting 4th from the left are RISE PI Wynetta Lee, VEST PI Sara Rimm-Kauffman, and RISE PI Marta Sanchez (deceased).
How have HBCUs shaped your scholarship and career?
I am fortunate to be a third-generation college student—both of my parents and one grandparent attended HBCUs. That makes me a product of HBCUs even though I did not attend one as a student. During my childhood, my teachers were also trained at HBCUs. At the risk of dating myself, it is important to note that I was born at a time and in a place where education was mandated by law to be delivered in segregated spaces. This system of education certainly carried a long list of undesirable outcomes.
I have heard it said that education is a social process, and I count myself as privileged to start my educational journey in an environment that was nurturing and inclusive, yet individualistic when needed. During my elementary school days, everyone in my educational community treated me as if I were their protégé. I had my own village of mentors—all of whom were on the same page when it came to my future. My mentors prepared me for the inevitable experience of desegregation and remained connected to me over my lifetime. They taught me that solid relationships are based on mutual trust, respect, and benefits. They also taught me that not all relationships are the same, yet there is something to be learned from each relationship if you pay attention.
In college, I found another village of mentors who were trained at HBCUs, and they too were on the same page when it came to my future. These scholars mentored me to degree completion and beyond. They gently but clearly pushed me toward graduate education and a career in higher education. They saw potential in me that I did not see in myself. This set me on a path to center my work around issues of educational equity and educational experiences in college.
Professionally, most of my academic career has been at HBCUs. What I have come to appreciate about HBCUs is that the ideal of “students first” is more than a phrase; it is a pillar of campus culture. HBCU students are not simply seen as brains waiting to be filled with knowledge. Rather, I have found that HBCUs operate as a community committed to addressing the academic, social, emotional, financial, and spiritual needs of students within their respective resources, which creates a natural environment for creating a village of mentoring.
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome the challenge?
I have had many experiences with being in the minority and with being “the only one” in a variety of contexts. I would say that the biggest recurring challenge I have encountered in higher education is being judged by people’s perceptions rather than by my skills. There are many things that helped me to overcome this challenge, such as having grit, choosing a positive outlook, and mentally playing out possible reactions to their likely conclusion prior to reacting to the challenge. However, I think the mentoring relationships that I have been part of over the years is what helped and continues to help me most. Receiving advice from a mentor you trust and who knows you well is an invaluable asset.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
My best advice is to develop a community of mentors. Seek out an education researcher to be one of your mentors. It is important to know that pursuing a career in education research does not need to be a solitary journey on a one-way highway. Mentors will help you in ways that you do not know you need and can connect you with opportunities. Also, do not underestimate the value of peer mentors. They have shared experiences with you and perspectives that can give you clarity, and they can be a strong source of support.
How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education?
I am privileged to serve as the principal investigator for RISE at NCCU, which is an HBCU in Durham, NC. RISE seeks to develop a cadre of future researchers who know the rules of rigor and ethics in social science research and can pursue research through a culturally competent lens. While not all RISE fellows may ultimately pursue a career in education research, each will be aware of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education and can push for it from their respective worlds of work.
How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?
The broader education research community can better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups by making it a priority to do so and investing resources.
It is important to spread the word that education research is a viable career choice. Students from underrepresented groups are often first-generation college students. These students know about careers in education because they engaged with teachers, principals, and counselors prior to college. However, the students I have encountered over the years—including graduate students—know nothing about a career in education research. People cannot pursue what they do not know.
Mentoring is the cornerstone of RISE. Our mentors share what fellows need to know for success through teaching, sharing experiences, providing opportunities, and through the development of mutually beneficial relationships that are safe spaces. Creating more formal and informal mentorship opportunities within the education research field is crucial to supporting the careers of all scholars, but particularly those from underrepresented groups.
Finally, the broader education research community can also better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups by being more welcoming of those who do pursue education research careers and by inviting collaborative relationships as they evolve professionally.
Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program and the new Early Career Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority Serving Institutions, the two IES training programs for minority serving institutions.