From Mentee to Colleague: Oberlin Mentorship Goes Above and Beyond

October 12, 2017

Tyler Sloan

Professor and student work together on a laptop by a podium
Associate Professor of Africana studies Meredith Gadsby (left) and Caitlin O'Neill '11 presenting at the conference, "Exploring Beauty and Truth in Worlds of Color."
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

One of the most powerful aspects of an Oberlin education is the mentorship relationships that students and professors foster together. 

It’s no accident that Associate Professor of Africana studies Meredith Gadsby and her former student, Caitlin O’Neill ’11, have served on three panels together since O’Neill graduated. It’s the product of positive and effective mentorship, and a relationship that encouraged O’Neill, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, to cultivate a passion for research and professorship.

As an undergraduate student, O’Neill worked closely with Gadsby as a Mellon Mays Fellow, a paid two-year research fellowship for PhD-track students geared toward increasing faculty diversity in higher education. Gadsby chaired O’Neill’s undergraduate research project, which closely aligned with her own academic and professional interests in Africana studies. Most recently, the duo participated in a panel about Afrofuturism in Associate Professor Charles Peterson’s “Exploring Beauty and Truth in Worlds of Color” conference.

“We often talk to students about the importance of research and different pathways for research,” Gadsby says. “To see the degree to which mentoring relationships don’t have to end with your undergraduate career, that they can persist, is a powerful way for Oberlin to see the fruits of its labor in terms of the Mellon program and also the powerful impact the Office of Undergraduate Research has.”

Gadsby and O’Neill’s communication has extended well past the years they spent together at Oberlin. O’Neill still checks in with her former professor for advice on subjects ranging from navigating graduate school to bouncing around ideas for research.

“I was recently in the process of submitting my first article, but when I first got accepted I texted Meredith and said, ‘What do I do?’” O’Neill says. “A lot of this has just been how gracious Meredith has been to continue being in communication with me.”

This type of close-knit mentorship is not an anomaly at Oberlin. With small class sizes and opportunities to conduct intensive research projects with faculty members, students often foster close relationships with professors that help shape their post-graduate paths.

Fourth-year Monique Newton, another Mellon fellow, has benefited from mentorship with Peterson and Assistant Professor of Politics Jennifer Garcia. Newton’s research focuses on African American voter turnout and responses in Cleveland, but her project doesn’t fit neatly into one academic department. Having professors from two departments, whose offices she can regularly drop by to develop ideas and invoke their expertise, has allowed her to advance the project far beyond its initial parameters.

“Coming here, not really knowing a lot about politics or thinking about it as a field of interest, I’ve really relied on my professors to give me more information,” Newton says. “Whenever I’m interested in something or want to talk about something, Professor Garcia is really good to bounce ideas off of and get feedback. Without all of my professors, I don’t know where I’d be.”

And the learning exchange goes both ways—in mentorship roles, faculty members get to know students on a personal level and sometimes even incorporate student research into their pedagogy.

“I may have had broad ideas about the topic when Monique first brought it to me, but I’m learning a lot now and think it’s really improving my ability to teach about African American politics,” says Peterson, who chairs Newton’s Mellon research. “Now there are questions I’m thinking about as I’m lecturing, teaching in class, and formulating new syllabi that are informed by Monique’s research.”

Monique Newton
Monique Newton '18 is a Mellon fellow, working with Associate Professor of Africana studies Charles Peterson and Assistant Professor of Politics Jennifer Garcia on her research. Photo credit: Jennifer Manna.

Newton will present her research at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research at the end of the month.

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