Graduate College

Cecilia Menjívar

Cowden Distinguished Professor School of Social and Family Dynamics

I believe that my mentoring philosophy is simple and straightforward: to impart knowledge to the best of my abilities, to instill a sense of excitement and adventure about learning and discovery, and to create an environment of mutual respect in which students take chances, ask questions, challenge me, and blossom into intellectually curious scholars in their own right. In this light, I see mentoring not as a discrete activity that commences in a student’s early years in graduate school and ends when they graduate. For me, it is a lifetime commitment and responsibility that brings me joy and keeps me going. And while I continue to be involved either through publishing with former students or as a resource for them when they need advice, I remain fully aware that they are now colleagues and treat them as such. But my continuing mentoring is undoubtedly one of the most fulfilling aspects of my professional life. Indeed, a particularly rewarding experience for me is to learn of my former students‟ achievements and to know that they are living productive lives. It is in this way that their accomplishments become extensions of my work, but with added satisfaction that goes beyond my own work.

Students learn the content of their respective fields through formal instruction, during seminars and classes, but it is the relationship with a mentor (or mentors) that shapes them as scholars, as thinkers, and as responsible citizens of the communities to which they belong. It is in the context of this relationship that they learn the ropes of their profession, of publishing, of attending and presenting at conferences, of selecting research questions that are important and relevant in today’s world, and all those wonderful and crucial components of the socialization of a student that is fundamental to their formation as scholars. It is also in this context that they learn their responsibility as researchers in producing knowledge that will benefit others.

One of the most important ways of operationalizing my mentoring philosophy is in maintaining a balance between on the one hand providing clear expectations, meeting periodically, setting specific and realistic goals, and following students’ progress closely by maintaining regular contact and, on the other hand, letting them develop their own projects, their own questions, ideas, and approaches to research. I see my role as holding their hand but not pulling them, more as a guide who pays very close attention to their voice along the way. And while providing guidance and support, I am also fostering autonomy so students develop into independent researchers and scholars in their own right. Thus, even as I challenge them, assign them difficult tasks and often push them beyond established parameters, one of the most truly rewarding experiences, for both the students and I, is to realize that they can do the work, that if they apply themselves they produce solid work, and that they can fulfill mine and their own expectations. But if they happen to stumble and “fail,” or for whatever reason they cannot meet a particular goal, these are key teaching moments that I use to remind them about perseverance and tenacity. On the whole, it is immensely gratifying for me to see that a subtle reminder or a gentle push, with patience and respect, can produce wonderful results that instill confidence and self assurance in the young scholars.

Another aspect of my balancing act as a mentor is to know when and how much to push a particular student. I have been fortunate to have attracted students who want to learn, work very hard, and produce the best work possible, even if initially they do not already posses all that it takes to succeed academically, or think (or have been told) that they do not. If I see the spark of curiosity in a student or a sincere desire to learn, I become convinced that I can work with them and that I can do my job to help them achieve in whatever goal we set together, particularly in cases when students do not think they can “make it.” I learn continuously, as each student comes with a specific history, background, and abilities and my role is to make the best of the wealth of experiences they come with and to continually challenge them. So for instance, I did not hesitate to ask one of my students to meet in my office the day after Thanksgiving (she and I spent the entire day there) to work on a paper that we later published successfully in a top journal in our field, or to remind one of my graduates during the commencement ceremony at Wells Fargo arena that he could take the weekend off to celebrate but that I expected him in my office early the following Monday to begin laying out publishing plans for his dissertation. It was a tremendous joy when this student’s book came out with a highly regarded academic press barely two years after he graduated. While my efforts to push students have generated some wonderful results, I remain cognizant that I cannot demand the same from all students; indeed, my balancing act rests on knowing when, who, and for what tasks I can push them and what other strategies to adopt so that students still produce according to my expectations. Thus, while I do not lower my standards, I always look to adopt diverse methods and strategies so that my students produce their best.

Mentoring also makes me reflect and think a great deal about how I live my life as a scholar, as a colleague, and as a person responsible for the education of others. When students and I sit down to narrow down a research question, to work out a plan for research, to discuss the literature on a particular topic, to plan a paper, or to apply for external funding for their projects, they realize that I do not always have a ready answer, that I do not “know everything.” I candidly allow them to see that I also can “fail” to know an answer, so that they recognize that I am also learning with them and that it is not a sign of ignorance or lack of ability to realize that we do not know. This attitude, of being a guide and someone who "knows" but not an intimidating figure who knows all the answers, I believe, leads us to find answers together and ultimately to discovery. Indeed, my work with students (I often tell them that they do not work “for” me, that they work “with” me) provides me with unparalleled opportunities to take a fresh look at my own research questions and to learn from different perspectives, to think more clearly about approaches and frameworks I use, and to continue to improve as a teacher and mentor.

Along these lines, and for similar reasons, I strive not to impose my own ideas, perspectives, and ideals on my students. By this I mean that I strive not only to provide a space for students to develop and explore their own ideas, but also to be flexible and open and to be attentive to the various options they have in mind for their futures as professionals. Whereas most of my former students have secured positions in very good departments at various universities and colleges around the country, I try not to force a rigid one-size-fits-all expectation for their professional careers based on my own experience. In this way too, I have learned to listen carefully and to understand the variety of perspectives and dreams the students bring.

A fundamental aspect of my relationship with my students is keep them motivated and excited about the work they do. I have found that responding quickly to their emails, even at odd hours, and providing feedback within a relatively short period of time on the work they turn in is a very efficient way of keeping them motivated. This signals to them that I care, that I take my relationship with them responsibly, and that their questions are important. This strategy has the added benefit of reminding the students that this is a two-way process; thus, they also respond quickly, responsibly, and stay ‘on track.’  In this way we foster mutual respect, a fundamental ingredient in the mentor-mentee relationship. And since students tend to emulate their mentors, my students are also learning how to treat their own students in the future.

In my genuine appreciation for variety in perspectives, positions, and purpose my mentoring is not bound by disciplinary demarcations or institutional constraints. Thus, I work with students from a wide range of units across the university and on occasion have served on committees outside ASU. And importantly, a significant amount of my mentoring occurs in the context of conducting my research. For instance, some years ago I assembled and worked with an excellent team of five doctoral students from four different ASU units. This was a truly collaborative project that allowed me to engage the students in all aspects of my work and through which I provided them with theory-based, rigorous training in the research of immigrant communities. Four of these students used the data from this study in their own dissertations (one used them for a dissertation not at ASU), and I have co-authored articles based on this research with some of them. These collaborative efforts provide invaluable opportunities to teach, guide, and shape the students' nascent research agendas, but also to re-examine my own line of thinking and frames of reference. In addition, I regularly hold informal meetings (and readings and conferences) with many doctoral students from across campus. In the process, I have learned a tremendous amount from them and thus the benefits, I trust, have been mutual.

My students have recognized me with nominations for several mentoring awards and I was awarded the Outstanding Mentor Award from the ASU Graduate Women’s Association. As I try to guide and mentor my students, I hope I can enrich their lives as much as they have enriched mine.


Current and Past Outstanding Doctoral Mentors