Mentoring to Build a Culture of Health

Aug 15, 2014, 9:00 AM

Adefemi Betiku was a junior at Rutgers University when he noticed that he wasn’t like the other students.

During a physics class, he raised his hand to answer a question. “Something told me to look around the lab,” he remembers. “When I did, I realized that I was the only black male in the room.”

In fact, he was one of the few black men in his entire junior class of 300.

“There’s a huge problem with black males getting into higher education,” says Betiku, currently a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) student at New York University (NYU). “That has a lot to do not just with being marginalized but with how black men perceive themselves and their role in society.”

U.S. Department of Education statistics show that black men represent 7.9 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in America but only 2.8 percent of undergraduates at public flagship universities. According to the Pew Research Center, 69 percent of black female high school graduates in 2012 enrolled in college by October of that year. For black male high school graduates, the college participation rate was 57 percent—a gap of 12 percent.

Betiku’s interest in the issues black men face, especially in education, deepened at Project L/EARN, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded initiative with the goal of increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups in the fields of health, mental health and health policy research.

Although research had never appealed to him, his father—the first of many mentors who would influence him—pressed Betiku to give Project L/EARN a chance. The research project he pursued that summer evaluated the impact of racial identity, stereotypical black masculinity, and socioeconomic status on both the physical and psychological health of black men.

“Project L/EARN helped me gain a better understanding of how these perceptions about ourselves affect us in the long run,” says Betiku. He also learned what it meant to immerse himself in galvanizing work. “I found my identity there. It literally changed my life.”

Affirmation and Evaluation

For Betiku, that summer also served as a primer on great mentoring, which Project L/EARN faculty director Jane Miller, PhD, calls “absolutely central” to the program.

Interns, explains Miller, are matched with experienced faculty who provide expertise on the selected research topic. In addition, she says, “L/EARN mentors provide individualized support and advice about education and career paths”—an approach that Betiku found empowering.

“My Project L/EARN mentor, Dr. Shalonda Kelly, asked me early on how I wanted her to treat me,” he recalls. For Betiku, a blend of affirmation and critical evaluation allowed him to thrive. “What made our relationship so successful was that she tried to figure out what type of mentoring worked best for me.”

Faculty expectations were a driving force as well. “Though I was a hard-working student, I had barely tapped my potential,” he says. “But Dr. Miller, [program director] Deedee Davis, Dr. Kelly...they don’t accept mediocrity. So whenever I handed in work, I would ask myself, ‘Will this be acceptable to them?’”

Even now, he adds, “when I’m tired and don’t want to put in the work, I think, ‘Would Dr. Miller be happy that you’re slacking on this? Would Deedee be happy that you’re not doing your best?’ They demanded something of me, and that has carried over.”

Three years on, Betiku still turns to his Project L/EARN mentors for guidance and motivation. He also practices what they preach. After graduating from Rutgers, he deferred his acceptance to NYU for a year to coordinate high school programs for the Rutgers Office for Diversity & Academic Success in the Sciences (ODASIS).

“It gave me the chance to pass on the knowledge that had been instilled in me by my own mentors,” he says.

No Limitations

Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote in her memoir, “A role model in the flesh provides more than inspiration. His or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, ‘Yes, someone like me can do this.’”

Betiku knows what it means to have—and to be—that kind of role model.

“I’m a Black, Nigerian man, and I mentor a lot of Black and Hispanic students,” he says. “As a minority myself, I can identify with their struggles.”

A study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation revealed that mentoring has a profound effect on at-risk youth—boosting their mental well-being, improving their grades, and fostering a belief that they can succeed in school. Similar findings underpin My Brother’s Keeper, President Obama’s initiative to connect youth with mentoring and support networks.

Betiku agrees that it’s crucial to build up the ranks of male mentors from underrepresented populations, especially when it comes to helping young Black and Hispanic men reach their full potential. “Good mentoring can make a huge difference in diversity,” he says. “That support system, with people who have your back, is unbelievably valuable.”

In counseling his mentees, he urges them not to place limitations on themselves based on their personal circumstances or skin color. “I tell them, ‘Stop trying to make excuses for us. I’ve experienced the same things you’re dealing with, and I made it. So can you.’”

But he admits that his greatest challenge is to step back and let his mentees make mistakes.

“That’s the hardest part, because you don’t want them to get hurt,” he says. “I had to learn that when they stumble it’s a good thing, because the best ones learn from their mistakes, and they’ll get stronger and wiser from making them.”

And what’s the most satisfying aspect of mentoring?

“When they make it!” Betiku says without hesitation. “That’s the best reward, because I feel like I helped them along the path to success. No amount of money or awards can compare to that.”

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