Celebrating great mentorship for graduate students

“When we talk about our experiences as graduate students at MIT, my colleagues and I tend to use words like ‘challenging,’ ‘rewarding,’ ‘inspiring,’ or ‘stressful’,” says Courtney Lesoon, the 2017-2018 Graduate Community Fellow for the Committed to Caring Program and a PhD student in the History, Theory and Criticism Section of the Department of Architecture. “Usually our discussions center around our research interests, new findings in our field, or upcoming deadlines.”

Honorees Ahmed Ghoniem (left) and Wesley Harris enjoy the Committed to Caring celebration on April 11. Photo: Joseph Lee

The conversation about challenges and stresses at MIT, though, is arguably shifting. A number of new programs have been initiated across campus that prioritize emotional and mental health not just as supplementary to the lives of students, but as integral to them. Such programs include MindHandHeart, the campus coalition to support community wellness; work of the Institute Community and Equity Office (ICEO); Active Minds, the student-led initiative for better health and wellness; and Committed to Caring (C2C), which honors caring faculty on campus.

In recent years, a growing body of research has highlighted the importance of advising and mentorship to graduate students’ academic experience and well-being. The Committed to Caring program recognizes that in graduate school, advisors and mentors set the tone for student experiences, and positive faculty support has the ability to shape student research and lives for the better. C2C honors professors who build inclusive cultures in their labs and classrooms, who support their students’ mental and emotional health, and who actively support their students’ scholarly pursuits. Selected faculty members are showcased via a broad campus poster campaign, individual profiles housed on the Office of Graduate Education website, and MIT News articles.

A celebration of caring

On April 11, a celebration was held to honor all past Committed to Caring awardees, as well as the 28 new awardees listed below. Profiles for the first two slates of C2C awardees may be found on the Committed to Caring website.

The event, held in the Samberg Conference Center, was hosted by Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz and included remarks by Provost Martin Schmidt and Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education Blanche Staton. Formal recognition of these new awardees will be ongoing throughout the 2018-2019 academic year, as pairs of posters and profiles are released each month.

The following faculty members are the 2017-2018 recipients of the Committed to Caring Award:

Emilio Baglietto, Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering

Cullen Buie, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Paola Cappellaro, Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering

Gabriella Carolini , Department of Urban Studies and Planning

Anna Frebel, Department of Physics

Paula Hammond, Department of Chemical Engineering

Wesley Harris, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Erin Kelly, Sloan School of Management

Tom Kochan, Sloan School of Management

Ju Li, Department of Materials Science and Engineering

John Lienhard, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Eytan Modiano, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Susan Murcott, Department of Urban Studies and Planning

Bradley Olsen, Department of Chemical Engineering

Agustin Rayo, Department of Linguistics and Philosophy

Rebecca Saxe, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Warren Seering, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Julie Shah, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Matthew Shoulders, Department of Chemistry

Hadley Sikes, Department of Chemical Engineering

Justin Steil, Department of Urban Studies and Planning

David Trumper, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Lily Tsai, Department of Political Science

Harry Tuller, Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Evelyn Wang, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Kamal Youcef-Toumi, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Jinhua Zhao, Department of Urban Studies and Planning

Ezra Zuckerman, Sloan School of Management

Student centered, student driven

Graduate students from across MIT’s campus are invited by the Office of Graduate Education (OGE) to nominate professors whom they believe to be outstanding mentors for the Committed to Caring Award. The nominations are then parsed by a selected committee composed primarily of graduate students, with additional representation by staff and faculty in the form of a prior recipient.

Selection criteria for C2C include the scope and reach of advisor impact on the experience of graduate students, excellence in scholarship, and demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion. By recognizing the human element of graduate education, C2C aims to encourage good advising and mentorship across MIT’s campus. The C2C Program was conceived in 2014 by Monica Orta, then-OGE assitant director for diverisity initiatives, and implemented by Orta and OGE Communications officer Heather Konar.

The work is driven each year by one graduate student who serves as the C2C Graduate Community Fellow and works closely with Konar. This year’s selection committee included Assistant Dean for Graduate Education Suraiya Baluch (chair), Professor Amy Glasmeier (previous C2C honoree), and graduate students Courtney Lesoon (2017-18 C2C Graduate Community Fellow), Claire Duvallet, Danielle Olson, and Jennifer Cherone (2016-17 C2C Graduate Community Fellow).

A process of affirmation

The C2C Program contributes to OGE’s mission of making graduate education at MIT “empowering, exciting, holistic, and transformative.” The opening of nominations in 2014 received a strong response, and the number and richness of nominations in subsequent rounds has only grown.

Baluch remarked of the most recent selection round, “It was heartwarming to read the numerous accounts regarding acts of compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit in our community. It speaks to the power and impact acts of caring have that so many students felt compelled to participate in the nominating process. These acts were often simple, every day actions such as regularly inquiring about someone's wellbeing or sharing a meal as well as responding with humanity to life's struggles.”

In 2017, the OGE received 114 nominations for 72 faculty members across campus. Committee members expressed being deeply moved by the thoughtful, sincere, and touching nominations that were submitted. Blanche Staton, senior associate dean for graduate education, says “I am grateful to our students for recognizing the caring and positive spirit and the contributions of our faculty, and I join them in applauding the professors who, by their example, show us all what it truly means to ‘advance a caring and respectful community’."

Guideposts for strong mentoring

As the committee reviewed this past year’s nominations, a number of striking themes emerged. Supported by numerous personal quotes, fellow Courtney Lesoon and the C2C team developed a list of “Mentoring Guideposts” that reflect acts of mentorship that seem to be the most meaningful and formative.

MIT graduate students were moved to nominate mentors who:

  • actively show empathy for students’ personal experiences;
  • advocate for students both academically and personally;
  • validate students by demonstrating interest in their research and ideas;
  • encourage and support students in developing a healthy work/life balance;
  • have courageous conversations about issues that impact students outside of MIT, such as political developments, personal loss, or housing needs;
  • initiate contact with students, check in consistently, and provide extra support as needed;
  • provide a channel for students to express their difficulties, including the means to do so anonymously;
  • foster a friendly and inclusive work environment;
  • emphasize learning, development, and practice over achievement and goals; and
  • advise informally, teaching students about the system of academia, the importance of networking, and professional development skills.

The C2C team is exploring ideas to disseminate the guideposts widely across campus.