Faculty Mentors Go the Extra Mile
The work is unpaid, time consuming and oftentimes may go unrecognized, yet faculty in units across The University of Arizona spent countless hours mentoring students academically and professionally.
Consider John Szivek.
Szivek is an orthopaedic surgery professor, an adjunct associate professor for materials science and engineering, a senior scientist with the Arizona Arthritis Center at the UA and a BIO5 Institute member.
He also directs the Orthopaedic Research Laboratory at University Medical Center, where he works with a team of student researchers on projects that involve developing technology to aid cartilage repair in arthritis patients.
Then there are his professional association and family commitments.
Somehow, he still has time to devote to his work as a mentor through the UA's nationally recognized Undergraduate Research Biology Program, or UBRP.
"A lot of times what happens when students first get here is that they are tremendously confused after coming out of high school, where everybody watches them, to this situation where they kind of feel like, â€˜I'm on my own,'" Szivek said.
Last month, Szivek received UBRP's first Outstanding UBRP Faculty Mentor Award. UBRP also awarded Sara Burke with the first Outstanding UBRP Graduate Student Mentor Award. Burke is a doctoral degree candidate in neuroscience.
UBRP has served about 1,500 in its 20 years at the UA and is one among several programs at the University that pairs students with faculty mentors.
Connecting UA faculty to students through research tends to be a huge help to both, Szivek said.
"They start to feel more comfortable about asking questions and talking about things that are going on," Szivek said, adding that the student-faculty mentor relationship is far more involved than the classroom interaction.
"They can connect better with the information this way," said Szivek, who is currently mentoring five undergraduates and one graduate student. "The benefit is twofold: I have people doing things in the lab and if I train exceptional clinicians, they will take care of us in our old age."
In his nomination letter to UBRP, UA doctoral degree candidate in physiological sciences Chris Geffre said Szivek's support has been "outstanding" over the years.
"In addition to his dedication within the lab, he has repeatedly shown his commitment to students outside of the lab. Prior to working with Dr. Szivek I thought research was something I could use to bolster a resume, now I have made it an integral part of my future career. If it were not for Dr. Szivek's dedication and support, I would have never chosen the career path I have," Geffre wrote.
The UA also has several mentoring programs and initiatives geared toward minority and low-income students, said Maria Teresa Velez, a UA research scientist and associate dean of the Graduate College.
"For the student, the relationship is important because they begin to understand what it takes to be a graduate student," said Velez, who is the lead on a number of programs that support minority and low-income students.
"And faculty have an opportunity to get to know a student quite well while also influencing him or her on how to look at the discipline," Velez said.
Among the programs that target students of color, those who are first generation or are low-income are Arizona Assurance, Faculty Fellows, the Summer Research Institute, the Minority Health Disparities Summer Research Opportunities Program, the Minority Access to Research Careers and the McNair Achievement Program.
"For The University of Arizona â€“ given the history of the state and the different constituencies we serve â€“ we have an obligation and have been trying very hard over the last 10 years or so to increase minority representation at all levels," said Kevin Gosner, the history department head who has served as a mentor to McNair Scholars.
Faculty mentors play a key role there, he said. But such faculty mentor programs provide a key benefit to faculty of varying disciplines.
"We call ourselves a student-focused research institution and often tend to think of students in science laboratories," Gosner said. "But faculty in the humanities, fine arts and the social sciences are also doing these kinds of things for our students."
Colleges and departments across campus also pair faculty with students as mentors or assist students in finding mentors.
"Students come to rely on faculty mentors," said Nura Dualeh, assistant director for the McNair program.
Each summer, the program needs about 15 additional faculty for the students it takes on. Also, McNair is currently recruiting faculty to work with students or serve as advisory board members, selection committee members and guest speakers.
Dualeh noted that student-faculty interaction can result in a "rich undergraduate experience" that not only benefits the student while at the UA, but also in the transition to graduate school and professional careers.
Dualeh said faculty-student interactions, when positive and supportive, result in a stronger sense of self and higher motivation levels on the part of the student.
"Lastly, it's about validation and affirmation," Dualeh said, noting that such relationships take on an enhanced meaning particularly for students who are first-generation college students. "This is critical."