Mentoring 4 Life: Enhancing STEM graduate student well-being at Eastern Michigan University

The landscape of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education faces a critical challenge: the retention of underrepresented population groups. Research consistently shows that students in underrepresented groups may depart graduate STEM fields due to several factors, including inadequate mentoring and perceived insufficient paths to find direction and a sense of belonging in their chosen programs.

To help address this gap in graduate STEM education, the U.S. National Science Foundation sponsored a pilot mentoring certificate program at Eastern Michigan University named Mentoring 4 Life (M4L). The M4L program combines the development of mentoring skills with self-advocacy for mental well-being, ensuring graduate STEM students are not only trained to mentor others but also given access individual mentoring and formalized workgroup coaching and interactions, resulting in greater program engagement and retention. The program tests and validates mentoring interventions grounded in models of graduate student socialization and social cognitive theory that addresses the multiple underlying causes of declining mental well-being.

Principal investigator Carmen McCallum describes the transformative impact of the online M4L program, which provides graduate STEM students a modular approach to gaining mentoring skills and self-advocacy empowerment to ensure greater confidence and sense of direction in their chosen fields.

Q: Dr. McCallum, what motivated your decision to seek an Innovations in Graduate Education (IGE) grant?

A: The impact of M4L extends beyond individual success; it addresses crucial challenges in STEM education, primarily the retention of underrepresented populations in graduate STEM programs. By equipping students with the tools to navigate and excel in their fields, M4L plays a pivotal role in nurturing a more diverse and inclusive STEM community. We can apply the reach and effectiveness of M4L to different programs across the school or to other graduate STEM programs across the country. It is more than just an educational tool. It is a commitment to shaping the future of STEM education. I believe that together, we can create a landscape where diversity is not just welcomed but celebrated, and every student is equipped to succeed.

Q: What aspect of your IGE project excites you the most, particularly in terms of its significant contributions to graduate STEM education?

A: At the heart of our program lies a new approach that redefines graduate STEM education. We have carefully crafted a program structure that synergizes mentoring workshops with dynamic growth groups and individual mentoring, creating a learning and development experience, in particular for underrepresented graduate STEM student populations. Our modular approach isn't just the sequence of learning steps; it is a mosaic of interconnected experiences designed to enhance the educational journey. Each module is a building block, contributing to a comprehensive balance of both mentoring skills and self-advocacy for well-being.

We want to expand our mentoring skills program in STEM to other graduate STEM schools to help us empower students and faculty to nurture a new generation of well-rounded STEM professionals and increase underrepresented student population success across the country.

Q: Tell us how your IGE project supports the wider Eastern Michigan University student community.

A: Over 100 students from a variety of underrepresented populations have participated in The M4L program. We plan to make M4L available to all fields of study and are in the process of taking the required steps to make that vision a reality very soon.

The M4L program at Eastern Michigan University has achieved remarkable success in fostering inclusive excellence in STEM education. Attracting students from diverse ethnic, cultural and disciplinary backgrounds, M4L has demonstrated its appeal and relevance. Participants completed surveys before and after the program, offering insightful feedback on their experiences. The results so far have been overwhelmingly positive. Students have expressed that M4L has been instrumental in enhancing their abilities to mentor others effectively and in leveraging the various mentoring learning and wellness resources offered by the university.

One of the most significant outcomes highlighted by the students is the understanding and application of different mentoring styles. This insight has empowered them to develop personalized mentoring plans meticulously tailored to meet the unique needs of each individual. This aspect of the program is particularly worthy and underscores the commitment of M4L to provide a student-centric mentoring experience. As we continue to analyze student participation and results, these early indicators suggest that M4L is not only meeting but exceeding its objectives. The program stands as a statement to the power of tailored mentoring and holistic support in shaping successful well-rounded STEM professionals.

Q: Mentorship is a huge part of your program. Tell us more about some of the most successful approaches the M4L program faculty uses in engaging with students.

A: M4L combines mentoring workshops, growth groups and individual mentoring.

The mentoring workshops are more than traditional sessions. They are catalysts for information sharing. Here, students don't just acquire skills. The students immerse themselves in an environment of continuous learning and inspiration that includes learning mentoring skills. The mentoring workshops serve as a platform for students to find a stronger sense of direction in their chosen academic paths and as future leaders in STEM.

Perhaps the most personally enriching program component is our growth groups. More than discussion forums, growth groups are vibrant communities where students explore and address the various stages of graduate social student socialization. Each group provides a safe space for students to express their challenges, share insights and collaboratively find solutions to their well-being needs.

The individual mentoring component offers M4L program participants the opportunity to receive mentoring from a STEM expert in their chosen field for three sessions. This approach also supports the end goal to help students develop professional networking connections.

Q: What is your vision for the future of your IGE project? What's next?

A: Our vision is to make STEM education more inclusive, flexible and accessible. Our aspiration for the M4L program extends far beyond our campus at Eastern Michigan University. We envision M4L not just as a successful initiative but as a pioneering model for universities across the country, adaptable to any degree program.

Our goal is to make M4L universally accessible. To achieve this, we would like to offer the program both in person and online. This dual delivery approach isn't just about flexibility, it is a commitment to inclusivity. We understand that each student's journey is uniquely shaped by learning preferences, geographic locations, and life circumstances. Particularly for underrepresented STEM student populations, this approach is more than just a convenience, it is a lifeline. By accommodating diverse learning styles and situations, we are not just teaching, we are empowering the next generation of STEM leaders. We are ensuring that every student, regardless of background or location, has equal access to the tools, support and opportunities they need to thrive in STEM fields.

For additional information, please visit the Eastern Michigan University website.