Mentoring focus to advance faculty diversity

Jennifer Thigpen.As the new director of Washington State University’s ADVANCE program, Jennifer Thigpen wants to help provide female and other under-represented faculty members the guidance and mentorship she felt she missed early on in her career.

“The opportunity to make the process smoother for others is one of the reasons why I am passionate about the work of the ADVANCE program,” said Thigpen, an associate professor in the Department of History who began her new role at the start of the semester. “There is a certain value to learning by doing, but I also think it shaved years off my life as I moved towards tenure. A little more formal mentoring with someone who could have foreseen the obstacles I would face down the road would have made my path less stressful and anxiety provoking. ”

ADVANCE at WSU was founded in 2008 to remove obstacles to recruiting, hiring, retaining, and advancing female faculty members in STEM fields. According to the National Science Foundation, women comprise only 21% of full professors in science fields and 5% of full professors in engineering despite earning about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the nation.

Over the last decade, the ADVANCE program has received more than $1.2 million in NSF-funding and expanded its scope significantly to support both female and under-represented faculty members (regardless of gender) in all fields of study. The program currently provides WSU faculty with support for work/life balance and leadership training opportunities, such as the external mentor program which connects early career professors with off-campus academic leaders.

Thigpen took over directorship of the program from Maria Gartstein, professor of psychology, who held the position since 2015.

Garstein said one of the keys to her own professional success in higher education was participating in the WSU External Mentor Program through ADVANCE. She was put in touch with Martha Ann Bell, professor of psychology at Virginia Tech University, for guidance.

“Working with my mentor helped me pivot my program of research,” Gartstein said. “Perhaps more importantly, it also helped me visualize exactly what I needed to do in order to become a leader in my field.”

In addition to leadership training and mentoring, ADVANCE offers programming and funding to promote work/life balance.

It also supports research on factors affecting the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women and diverse faculty in higher education. This research is then shared with a network of higher education institutions across the Northwest.

“In addition to helping our women and other diverse faculty members reach their highest potential at WSU, it is important to share what we learn through the ADVANCE program with other institutions to help promote equity across the region,” Thigpen said.

Top image: Jennifer Thigpen

By Will Ferguson, WSU Insider