Mellon Awards highlight role of faculty mentors

At a university of USC’s size, students often graduate without ever finding a faculty member to guide them through their college years and counsel them as they head into careers and the real world. But a few find faculty mentors whose perspective, wisdom and advice shapes their success at USC, and those mentors are trying to encourage others to take on the role.

Dr. Charles Gomer, a professor of pediatrics and radiation oncology for the Keck School of Medicine and vice chair of pediatrics for faculty development, co-chairs the Mellon Mentoring Forum, which honors outstanding faculty mentors for contributions to their colleagues or students as part of its annual award program.

“I feel very strongly and I think all the faculty here feel very strongly that we all want to give back now. We want to help other individuals just like the previous faculty have helped us,” Gomer said.

Gomer said he feels his educational and professional careers have been helped significantly by the presence of mentors, and he hopes to help current students find mentors.

“Each one made a difference,” he said, adding that mentoring is “a valuable asset we just can’t underestimate in this day in age to help people succeed.”

The school has been receptive to Gomer’s mission, he said, and strives to help create a mentoring relationship between faculty and students.

“The administration believes very, very strongly that mentoring should be an essential part of an outstanding university,” Gomer said. “It’s an indication from the university of how high they value this activity, that it is essential for the success of faculty or students.”

Gomer said he has noticed faculty at USC are typically open to taking on a mentorship role.

“We’re very fortunate at USC,” he said. “Our faculty want our students to succeed. There’s no doubt about that. And part of that is giving lectures and the coursework, but it goes beyond that. It’s outside the classroom where a lot of your learning goes on and that’s the mentoring process.”

Kara Bartelt, an assistant professor at the School of Architecture, received a Mellon Award last year, which is given to faculty mentoring undergraduate students. Bartelt said it was her experience with mentors that led her to want to be a mentor to others.

“I have been fortunate to have mentors in my life and education who took the extra time and effort to give personalized attention to my cause. They were critical to my growth and to my personal achievements,” Bartelt said. “The fact that I may now return the favor and play that role in someone else’s life is extremely rewarding to me now as a professor at USC.”

Paul Adler, a professor at the Marshall School of Business and a 2009 Mellon Award recipient for faculty mentoring faculty, said he feels it is important to collaborate and to share knowledge.

“Mentoring is a particularly rewarding facet of collegiality,” Adler said. “It is an exciting intellectual and human exchange expressing our shared commitment to advancing knowledge.”

But perhaps the most important aspect of the mentoring process is what the students get from it.

“It’s just been cool to have someone that’s doing something that you’re interested in doing and you can look to them as a good example,” said Laura Klein, a senior majoring in civil engineering who does research with her faculty mentor and professor, Dr. Burcin Becerik-Gerber.

Klein said she has never had a problem finding enough people to go to for advice but that her mentor was especially supportive of her higher education plans post-graduation.

Lauren Weinzimmer, a senior majoring in communication and English, works closely with Stacy Smith, a communication professor, and Alison Trope, her thesis adviser. She said both have helped make her college years an invaluable experience.

“Having faculty mentors and close relationships with professors has helped me really figure out what I want to do,” said Lauren Weinzimmer, a senior majoring in communication and English.  “I’ve had a lot of people that I have been able to go to and talk about my interests and graduate school.”

Weinzimmer plans to nominate her mentors for Mellon Awards this year.

Not all USC faculty members are as open to fostering mentorship relationships with their students, Weinzimmer said, though she has found the faculty are generally more accessible to their students and invest more time in them at private universities.

“What makes USC different from a lot of other universities is that the faculty are really invested in their students, and not just in their graduate students, but in their undergraduates,” she said.