Graduate College

Elizabeth (Beth) Blue Swadener

Professor of Culture, Society and Education / Justice and Social Inquiry, School of Social Transformation, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Mentoring Philosophy and Practice

Having benefited from excellent mentoring from my professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I have tried throughout my career to pay it forward in a number of ways - with over 100 doctoral mentees in three universities in the U.S. and two abroad (in Kenya and Greece). This essay is a brief reflection on the ways in which an "ally" approach, anchored in social justice, permeates my work as a mentor. All of my degrees have reflected interdisciplinary study and I have long crossed academic borders and mentored students in several fields. Principles of social justice and inclusion have informed my research and collaborative work with students in the fields of childhood studies, early childhood and special education, policy studies, and, most recently, justice studies. My mentorship is organic, participatory and grounded in my work in unlearning oppression and alliance building across difference. It is also grounded in the belief that all doctoral students have an array of funds of knowledge, can complete a strong dissertation and will disseminate their scholarship and impact the field.

When I began my tenure track career at Pennsylvania State University, I immediately had the opportunity to mentor Ph.D. and Ed.D. students. I also taught the first education courses in qualitative research methods there and worked with students in three fields of study. My first three doctoral advisees are all professors and I have co-authored book chapters and co-edited a book with Dr. O’Brien. I was active in the support of international students, and have continued this role. With a move to Kent State University, I had the opportunity to mentor many doctoral students and continue to work with several of them. While at Kent State University, I facilitated a series of Dissertation Support Groups, in which doctoral students came together every other week to give feedback on chapter drafts, identify goals, and provide mutual support. I brought this model to ASU, where my most recent support group started in May 2010. Doctoral students in this group have included doctoral candidates in Early Childhood Education, Special Education, Education Leadership and Policy Studies, Justice Studies, Educational Psychology, and Theatre. Since our start just two years ago, 14 students have successfully defended dissertations and 5 more will be graduating this May.

As we have celebrated the dissertation defenses of 19 recent doctoral graduates, I believe their success speaks not only to their intellect, vision, and persistence, but to the importance of an effective support group. Specific strategies of the dissertation completion support group have included: (1) meeting year-round, every other week, and being in frequent online communication; (2) forming writing partnerships, in which students meet together and write or discuss conceptual or data analysis issues in weeks when the larger group does not meet; (3) having an individual “check in” at each meeting and stating goals to have completed by our next meeting; (4) facilitating feedback on dissertation drafts, defense presentations, and late, job talks; and (5) maintaining a climate of respect, critique with kindness, and other “ally” strategies.

A related form of mentorship has been offering Writing for Publication doctoral seminars (4 times at ASU), in which all students bring the start of a manuscript that they wish to submit to a refereed journal in their field. All students have at least one writing partner, from who they get frequent, detailed feedback and edits – in addition to my feedback. We discuss each person’s draft in our class sessions and the “final” requirement is to submit their manuscript to a journal. I also bring in colleagues who are journal editors as guest speakers and discuss all aspects of the review and feedback process. Often, students take this writing seminar with me and then join the dissertation support group when they reach candidacy or are preparing for comps and proposal. Thus, two levels of scaffolding and support are provided – to get a manuscript submitted for publication and be better prepared for the writing challenges of the candidacy and dissertation process.

Throughout my career I have co-authored publications with current and former doctoral students. One book, Decolonizing Research in Cross-Cultural Contexts: Critical Personal Narratives, co-edited with former doctoral advisee Kagendo Mutua, won the American Educational Research Association Narrative Analysis SIG’s book of the year award in 2005. We continue to co-author articles and chapters and will be co-presenting two papers at this year’s AERA annual meeting.

Another commitment I have brought to my mentorship of doctoral students is to pursue funding for doctoral fellowships, graduate assistantships, and staff positions on larger research projects. I have also built in funding for travel so that doctoral students have opportunities to present at national and international conferences. I have written and been part of several federal personnel preparation grants. Including a doctoral fellowship program (co-PI with Professor Jeanne Wilcox) that funded students from early childhood, special education, speech and hearing, and child development in a research-focused program in which early publication was encouraged. I taught the writing for publication seminar for this cohort and many have published work that was refined in that course.

Two of the doctoral students in this program went on to work in a large statewide project, for which I served as the ASU Principal Investigator. This project, the First Things First External Evaluation, was a collaboration of the three state universities and provided the opportunity for over 15 doctoral students from several majors to gain experience in a longitudinal mixed-method design. At the height of our data collection, this project employed over 80 people part or fulltime, most of whom were ASU students. I feel that such experiences on large-scale research projects are valuable experiences to have and continue to write grants which will support our graduate students.

Returning to the theme of social justice and ally work, shortly after I arrived at ASU in 2001, I worked with doctoral students in Justice Studies and Education to found a student/community organization, Local to Global Justice (www.localtoglobal.org). This group has provided powerful experiences for the graduate student leaders for many years, including planning and facilitating a three day Teach-In, which brings 400-500 people to ASU for a free weekend of workshops, music, healthy food, activities for and with young people, and internationally known keynote speakers. We recently had our 11th annual Teach-In and some of the doctoral alumni, who had been leaders while at ASU, return each year. Among the graduate students who have benefited from this are, Dr. Luis Fernandez, now an Associate Professor at NAU, Dr. Connie Engel, a women’s health researcher in San Francisco, and Dr. Kyrsten Sinema, J.D., who is currently a candidate for U.S. Congress. Others have returned to their home countries, including the Philippines, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Kenya, and Mexico and are making a difference there. I feel that faculty should walk the talk of social justice and sustainability and support student organizations and social learning opportunities.

Having done research and volunteer work in several sub-Saharan African nations, particularly in Kenya, since the late 1980s, and having been a Fulbright Senior Researchers in Kenya, I have sought to do all I can to support international students – particularly those from marginalized communities of the Global South. I have recently mentored four Kenyan students from such backgrounds. All grew up in poverty and three are from nomadic, animal herding communities. It has been a particular joy to witness their contributions upon returning to Kenya – for example, Dr. John Ng’asike, and now a Senior Lecturer at Kenyatta University and Dr. Okongo Benson Odongo, who currently chairs Early Childhood Education at Bondo University in western Kenya. I am working closely with both as we plan for a 2013 international early childhood conference to be held in Kenya – with Dr. Ng’asike the chair of the host committee. I have also recently mentored two students through their successful dissertations defenses with focus on resettled refugee students (Eman Yarrow and Adama Sallu). Part of my role as mentor has been to make sure that students coming from the Global South have affordable housing (I have often lined up an apartment prior to their arrival), opportunities to tour in Arizona and get out of the Valley, and various other forms of informal support. While academic mentoring is critical, sometimes more is needed to help assure student success.

Turning to the accomplishments of former doctoral students, many are in tenure track positions or have been tenured and promoted to associate and full professor. I have been pleased with the positions that recent advisees have accepted. Dr. Mark Nagasawa is at the Erikson Institute and affiliated with Roosevelt University in Chicago in a highly ranked graduate program in early childhood. Dr. Jamie Joanou is beginning an Assistant Professor position at Westminster College in Utah next month and served as a post-doc in the First Things First project. Soon to be Dr. Lacey Peters, whom I have mentored through many collaborative funded projects and the writing support group, has accepted an Assistant Professor position at Hunter College, CUNY. Two students who I co-mentored with Dr. Joseph Tobin, with whom I continue to collaborate on conference planning and book publishing, are Allison Henward, on the faculty of the University of Hawai’i and Joseph Valente, at Penn State.

Former Kent State University doctoral advisee Dr. Kagendo Mutua is an Associate Professor at the University of Alabama and up for promotion to Full Professor in the coming year. Her work has been widely recognized and we have collaborated extensively with work focused on her home country of Kenya. Similarly, I have continued to mentor and have published with Associate Professor Patrick Wachira at Cleveland State University and Dr. Janette Habashi, Associate Professor of Human Relations at University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. Janette and I are currently co-editing an international volume on children’s rights and education. I have also mentored a number of doctoral students from Turkey, Korea and Taiwan – most of whom have returned to home countries and are teaching in universities or, in one case, working in a high level position in the Ministry of Education (in Korea).

In summary, mentoring doctoral students has been a joy, a challenge, and a deeply satisfying part of my work as a professor. Making lifelong friendships, witnessing accomplishments, and continuing to collaborate on an array of scholarly and social justice projects make mentorship one of the most fulfilling aspects of my life and work.


Current and Past Outstanding Doctoral Mentors