‘Culturally Competent Mentoring’ Serves Non-Traditionals

We all serve as mentors. We all wear that hat.

Academics can be a strange new world, especially for a non-traditional student.

At Urban College of Boston (UCB), students are mostly non-traditional, leading president Dr. Linda Edmonds Turner to find creative ways to support them.

She shared her experiences in “Culturally Competent Mentoring: The Key to Successful Outcomes for Women Who are First-Time or Non-Traditional Students,” at the Oxford Round Table Women’s Leadership Conference in Oxford, England in August.

Turner has been at UCB for almost four years. One of the first African-American women to attend Virginia Tech in 1996, she earned a BA, MBA and PhD there, and an MS from Michigan State. After working in new product development and executive marketing positions at companies such as Whirlpool and Polaroid, she moved to academics. She called UCB her latest “new product.”

She’s found tons of data on corporate mentoring, but not much on mentoring low-income or new students.

About the college

With a mission of increasing college access and degree completion of low-income students in Boston’s urban neighborhoods, Urban College of Boston opened in 1993. Its creator was the Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), an anti-poverty social service agency.

A private, two-year, federally funded school, it won accreditation in 2001. It serves more than 750 students each semester, offering three associate of arts degrees (Early Childhood Education, Human Services Administration and General Studies), as well as nine certificate programs. Continuing education is also available, and the college has transfer partnerships to four-year degree colleges.

The only designated Hispanic-serving institution in New England, UCB has a student body that reflects the cultural and ethnic diversity of Boston’s inner city. Students are of nontraditional age over 24 and face challenges such as language barriers, lower-paying jobs, family responsibilities (often single parent) and housing issues. In a 2001 editorial, the Boston Globe said, “It offers what is—in the best sense—life support.”

Who are its students?

  • 93% are women; 63% have children
  • 96% work full time; 78% earn less than $32,000
  • 88% are minorities: Hispanic (51%), African American (26%) and Asian American (11%)
  • More than one-third use English as a second language
  • 58% are more than 10 years past high school
  • 41% have been on welfare at some point in their lives

Most are already working full-time, seeking a certificate or a degree to help them earn more money. Many work in day-care centers, and must meet state licensing requirements to advance. USB is the only school in New England to offer a bilingual certificate in early childhood education, in English and either Cantonese or Spanish.

 Regardless of why a student comes to the college, staff members immediately start talking to them about earning a college degree. They plant the seed early, telling students “You too can have a college education,” said Turner, be-cause if the words “college degree” aren’t in a student’s vocabulary, she’ll never see herself on that path.

But most have not had positive experiences with education, and few have families who support education. It takes a student, on average, six or seven years of night and evening classes to complete an associate’s degree.

During so long a process, attrition is inevitable, especially given the students’ other obligations. UCB is located in the ABCD offices in Boston Commons, where each floor helps the city’s poor with issues like housing assistance, health, fuel assistance, childcare, career development and jobs, so students can access these resources more easily.

But nontraditional students need more than just logistical assistance. They need mentors that look like them, talk like them and share the same cultural backgrounds, to tell them that they too can earn a college degree. That’s where Turner and her staff come in.

Beyond advising

UCB students have academic advisors, and access to specialized academic support resources on campus, including learning centers, tutoring in several languages, and workshops, such as on English support. Computer stations let students without computers perform research and write papers.

Aware that her students need more than just standard advising, Turner has instilled a culture of mentoring on campus. Mentor, she explained, has evolved from a Greek story to mean “trusted counselor or guide.” She promotes the concept that everyone at UCB is a mentor—and recognizes the extra demands that it places on faculty and staff.

“It’s a culture I promote as president, but it puts a tremendous burden on the institution to recruit and train exceptionally dedicated staff to help students navigate the complexities of life,” she acknowledged.

Her ideal mentoring model at the college is one part mentor and one part social worker, a position she’s assumed many times. Students call her with their problems, or to ask her to help a friend who is falling through the cracks. Students ask her, “Do you really care that much?”

Turner once met with a student who had dropped out because she had failed an English class, and didn’t think she should have. Turner shared that she had once failed a PhD exam, and also didn’t think she should have failed. Her confession encouraged the student enough to try again.

Speaking with students in their native language is important at UCB. Erin Knepler, the school’s director of academic grants, assisted a Latina student with a scholarship so she could attend summer classes. Recognizing that Latinas are often reluctant to seek help, Knepler told her to call her if she ever needed anything. The student did call for advice on a class-related problem. Conversing with Knepler in Spanish, the student quickly revealed that she was having other stresses, including family life.

“Everyone needs someone to talk to,” said Knepler, “and it’s more difficult to ask for help in some cultures. I am not an academic advisor, but we all serve as mentors, we all wear that hat.”

The staff

Not all of the staff is bilingual, Turner said, noting that when faculty speak their language, it increases students’ comfort level. Her challenge in creating the type of environment that will help UCB’s students succeed is to recruit instructors and administrators who embrace what she called “culturally competent mentoring.”

She has managed to cultivate a culturally diverse and sensitive staff by drawing on faculty at the more than 50 other colleges in and around Boston. Because UCB’s students work full-time and take most of their classes on nights and weekends, faculty from other schools can teach at UCB as well. “There’s a big pool to pull from,” she said. “There are rich resources for faculty members.”

For fall 2006 she has 14 administrators and 41 full- and part-time faculty, making a staff of 55. They’re 73% female and 27% male, and 56% Caucasian, 24% African American or African, 13% Latino and 7% Asian American.

Currently actively recruiting bilingual staff, Turner looks for faculty and staff with diverse intellectual and socioeco-nomic backgrounds, so they can relate to the diversity of the student body—and believe in UCB’s mission. Participating in mentoring stems from a belief in the mission of the college, she’s found.

Belief in the college’s mission has affected staff hiring and retention. UCB has a 58% retention rate for faculty members who have taught at the school for more than five years. Faculty report that they feel committed because “they feel they are giving back to the/their community or making a much-needed investment in the low-income community” and “they believe in the college’s mission of serving low-income nontraditional students.”

Other components

Another element of the mentoring culture Turner has fostered is the college’s alumni association, formed in 2004. It organizes events to promote the college and its alumni, and to encourage continued personal and professional growth. It’s also giving back by helping current students.

Association president Noreen King, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees after graduating from UCB, makes herself available to help students with papers. Her goal is to establish a “buddy system,” where alumni are paired with students to offer support and advice for personal and professional growth.

Trust, said Turner, is the key to the mentoring relationship at UCB. The school has been successful, she said, because they respect students. Students often tell them, “You guys really care; you want us to succeed.”

After her presentation, participants noted the importance of mentoring. “Attrition happens because students don’t feel connected,” one said. “Students feel connected because of the faculty.” Another noted: “To keep your faculty motivated to encourage these students, you need to provide incentives. Praise goes a long way.”

Reach Dr. Linda Turner at

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