Mentoring the Next Generation

Apr 4, 2012, 1:00 PM, Posted by


Robert Otto Valdez, PhD, is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) professor of family & community medicine and economics at the University of New Mexico. He serves as executive director of the RWJF Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, a national program office for increasing diversity in health and health care leadership.

I have come to learn that mentoring is tricky business. Luckily, my own mentors often played the traditional role that Homer described of Telemachus’ mentor, a fellow named (logically enough) Mentor. They nurtured, protected, and educated me on the ways of the academy and have guided me in my professional career decisions. For some reason unbeknownst to me, they assumed I should take my “rightful” place in the academy and as a leader.

Through their wise example, I learned that mentors help their protégés set goals and develop standards and skills. They protect their protégés from others, so that they can take risks and potentially fail in a safe environment. They facilitate their protégés’ entrance into professional circles. But, so much of my mentoring depended on luck, on developing relationships that had the “right chemistry,” or on already being in the “right circles.”

What about young scholars who were not alumni of particular institutions that facilitate entry into powerful social networks, or who are without family connections that facilitate entry into academic or professional circles? How are they to be mentored? If Lady Luck fails them and they find no mentor, unfortunately they remain abandoned outside our professional circles. I find this to be the case for many young scholars from under-represented minority communities. Role models and faculty from their communities remain rare in our nation’s institutions of higher education. Thus, in many institutions the need persists for a more systematic approach to preparing young scholars.

At the RWJF Center for Health Policy, we’re trying to do just that, providing seminars and workshops that transmit to all our affiliated young scholars the formal and informal knowledge and skills they need to become successful scholars and policy analysts. But, we also focus on leadership development, so that our graduates are ready to take on their rightful leadership roles in our society. Our first cohort—doctoral graduates and post-doctoral scholars—have successfully started tenure track positions for which they are well prepared to succeed.

Thanks to an amazing National Advisory Board, we create increased opportunities for that magic mentor-protégé match to occur. We broaden the circle of potential mentors available for matches through invitations to the alumni of our sister RWJF Human Capital programs and their National Advisory Committees. I certainly cannot thank my colleagues—especially the mentors—enough for their assistance, guidance, and encouragement of our scholars. Like all of us at the Center, they believe that every emerging scholar deserves the academic and professional benefits that a mentor can provide.

Read more about the RWJF Center for Health Policy Research at the University of New Mexico, and about three recent postdoctoral fellows of the Center who have taken tenure-track academic positions.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.