Kathryn Waddington, Emerita Fellow in Psychology, University of Westminster
Deborah Husbands, Reader in Psychology, University of Westminster
Bryan Bonaparte, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Westminster
In this blog we reflect on the process and outcomes of a small reverse mentoring study, where five undergraduate Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) psychology students mentored five senior leaders. From the outset we draw attention to problematic usage and sensitivities surrounding language and terminologies associated with a) race and ethnicity; b) reverse mentoring overtones of backward – rather than forward – direction of travel; c) barriers to mentoring caused by hierarchical/gender differences in power; and d) perceptions of institutional indifference for the importance of mentoring. These were explored in our evaluation of the mentoring scheme, which took place in 2019, when BAME was still the term used in a Universities UK report into student attainment/awarding gaps.
Aims & Background
The aims of the scheme were to enable senior leaders (Vice-Chancellor, Heads of School/College/Services) to gain deeper insight into BAME students’ experience and incorporate those insights into their practice; and to enable students to gain access to resources and relationships to enhance their learning gain – broadly defined as improvement in knowledge, skills, work-readiness and personal development.
It was a pilot, face-to-face mentorship scheme which took place pre-Covid. Mentorship traditionally involves a process where the mentor, as an experienced person, guides the mentee in developing the knowledge and skills required for their professional career development. Reverse mentoring involves exchanging traditional roles of mentor/mentee and rejectingmentorship models based on notions of expertise, power and hierarchy. Recent research with medical students shows how reverse mentoring can provide an opportunity to help staff better understand the realities faced by students from underrepresented groups (e.g. low socioeconomic backgrounds, minoritised groups and members of communities with protected identities). Reverse mentoring can move university cultures away from a student deficit narrative, towards more inclusive cultures of co-creation and the mentor-mentee relationship as one of being equal thinking partners.
We invited students that we knew (as personal tutees, student representatives) to join the scheme, whom we felt confident that, with briefing and support, would not be afraid to ‘speak truth to power’. A joint briefing session took place over lunch where everyone introduced themselves by saying their first name/what they preferred to be called; and their favourite food and why. This provided an opportunity for intercultural insights at an early point in the mentor-mentee relationship. Mentor-mentee matching was done randomly by drawing ‘names out of a hat’. Student mentors later recalled where they were when they opened the email informing them who their mentee was:
On the bus and OMG – I’m mentoring the VC!
Student mentors had an additional briefing session which included communication and reflective practice skills, a mentor briefing pack with relevant reading and web-based resources. Compassion is a core value at Westminster and students were encouraged to share their thinking, stories, reflections, and resources related to self-compassion, which comprises: (i) self-kindness; (ii) understanding our shared/common humanity; and (iii) mindfulness. Introductory ‘ice-breaker’ activities that could be used in early meetings were also suggested, e.g. sharing thoughts on Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘The danger of a single story’.
Mentorship meetings were encouraged outside of formal environments/offices in public spaces, e.g. cafés. Key aspects were meetings of at least 30-minutes, and a minimum of four sessions based around a negotiated contract and principle of being equal thinking partners. The pilot scheme ran for six-months, and all participants took part in follow up interviews. Some mentors and mentees continued to meet/stay in contact at the end of the scheme, which was viewed positively by all participants.
In regard to being equal thinking partners, it was important that egos were left outside of the mentoring space:
It needs to be an ‘egoless’ conversation, so as a student I had to leave my slightly fragile ego outside to be able to share a ‘proper conversation’ about the similarities and differences in our experience of growing up as men. I had always thought the grass was greener for academics, but now I think it’s just cut differently. [Mentor]
Self-compassion acted as a catalyst for shared stories of vulnerability:
I was able to talk about my feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’ and we shared our experiences of coping with grief and loss in an authentic way, which helped to break down barriers. [Mentee]
Senior leaders found it a valuable experience that should continue/extend to other student/staff groups:
It would be helpful to know about the assumptions that other types of students hold, care leavers and disabled students for example. The scheme could go beyond the senior leadership team as mentees, to colleagues working in professional services such as library staff and registry. [Mentee]
When asked about appropriateness of ‘reverse mentoring’ terminology, it was not seen as problematic, but participants offered alternatives such as:
Why not simply call it a mentoring scheme? [Mentee]
What about calling it prosocial mentoring? [Mentor]
In conclusion, we’d now love to hear your thoughts on reverse mentoring in academic spaces. Have you been a mentor or mentee? How has this shaped your experience of academia?
A longer version of this blog will be published later this year as:
Waddington, K., Husbands, D., & Bonaparte, B. (in press). Leaving egos outside: A ‘reverse mentoring’ study of BAME psychology students and senior university leaders. Journal of Academic Development and Education, Issue 14.