Mentorship in Black and White

Racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented as nurse researchers. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds the STAR (Stipends for Training Aspiring Researchers) Program to enhance recruitment of minority students into research careers. In the summer of 2002, after completing my third year as a student in the BSN program at Hunter College in New York City, I had the opportunity to spend nine weeks participating in a STAR research project at the University of Washington School of Nursing in Seattle.

In the STAR Program, each student is matched up with a faculty mentor based on his or her indicated area of research interest. During my application process, I visited the nursing school’s Web site for the profiles of faculty who were doing research on pain and end-of-life care, the subjects in which I was interested. I picked out the names of the two faculty members whose work was closely aligned with my area of interest. After reading the profile of Dr. Diana J. Wilkie, I knew that her research was what I wanted to pursue. However, as a student of color, an immigrant to the U.S. and a first-generation college student in my family, I was terrified and intimidated that I could be working with a white mentor who had numerous publications and quite a few titles after her name.

The fact that she was white was what mostly concerned me, because I had heard anecdotes from other minority students about how they had found certain majority faculty members difficult to work with. I thought about it for a while and decided to find out for myself. Because I was committed to accomplishing the goals I had set for myself, I was willing to try.

A few weeks after my acceptance into the STAR Program, I received a very interesting email from my mentor. With her permission, I am sharing what Dr. Wilkie wrote:

“Hi, Miriam. I am delighted to learn that you are interested in working with me and my team this summer. We are engaged in several really interesting projects related to pain or end-of-life care. I look forward to speaking to you on the phone later today or tomorrow. Our Web site listed below describes our work if you have not seen our new site. If you have any questions, please ask. Email is the easiest way to touch base with me since I have lots of travel planned.

“I understand that your first day will be June 17. I will be out of town that day but I’ll be back on June 18 and would like you to go with me to a special event held here on June 18-20. I will arrange for one of our team members to meet you on 6/17 and orient you to our lab.

“Once again, I am honored that you want to work with us and are interested in this important health care topic.”

I read her message many times, trying to analyze it. Would she really be as understanding as she sounded? Finally, I concluded that I had to give her the benefit of the doubt and reserve my judgment until the time when I would meet and work with her.

Fears and Stereotypes

After my acceptance into the STAR Program, I was faced with the challenging task of preparing to move to Seattle for the nine-week period. Having lived in New York City for almost seven years, the thought of moving to an unfamiliar territory where I knew absolutely no one was quite unnerving. It was far more overwhelming to me than the first day I arrived in the United States, because I had some relatives in New York.

My biggest fear about moving to Seattle stemmed from a comment one of my African-American friends made when I told her about my plans. She tried to discourage me from going to the western part of the country, saying that Seattle is a primarily white area that was not friendly to black people. My friend also told me that Seattle had many “rednecks” (as she put it) and wooded areas, and that these bigoted people might lynch me. I now know that these perceptions were stereotypes. But back then, at the sound of the word “lynch,” I immediately flashed back to the American history book that I read when I first came to the U.S., and the information I learned when I took a Black politics class at my college. With these thoughts, my knees almost buckled.

As soon as I got off the phone with my friend, I called the coordinator of the McNair Scholars Program at my school, because I am a member of that program. I told her what my friend had said. The coordinator was upset and said, “Why did she tell you something like this? She should know better than that.” I asked her point blank, “Is it true? Do they still lynch people in the U.S. in the 21st century? Because if they still do, I don’t plan to become a statistic.”

After the coordinator calmed me down, she told me that lynchings don’t happen anymore. But at the same time, she warned me that I should not wander in neighborhoods where I should not be at night. I thought, “It is going to be hard to know which ones are safe.” Throughout my stay in New York, I have never had to worry about which neighborhoods I should be in or which ones were forbidden for me. Then I decided that I would be fine in Seattle because I would not have any classes or work to keep me out late at night. Although I felt better about my decision to move to Seattle, it still bothered me that minorities still feel threatened by their white counterparts in this day and age.

Encountering Discrimination

The title of my STAR research project was “Feedback About TNEEL (Toolkit for Nurturing Excellence at the End-of-Life Transition).” TNEEL is a teaching tool developed by nurse researchers at the University of Washington to assist health educators in teaching about end-of-life care. The project team had sent more than 8,000 TNEEL CDs to accredited schools of nursing and clinical educators in the U.S., and had mailed 30,000 brochures to hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and medical schools. Seven TNEEL workshops were held throughout the country. The TNEEL team had received a great deal of feedback through emails, workshop evaluations and verbal comments. The purpose of my project was to analyze this feedback so that the team could use these findings to generate a marketing strategy for promoting the adoption of TNEEL.

At the lab where I worked, things were going great for me. The team members of the Cancer Pain & Symptom Management Nursing Research Group were willing to share their experiences with me. They helped me get over the fear I had always had about using computers. My mentor introduced me to the research process, taught me to believe in myself and gave me so much confidence that I started to figure out things that I never thought I could do before.

I was very pleased when Dr. Wilkie invited me to go with her to the American Nurses Association (ANA) biennial meeting in Philadelphia. At the conference, I met many amazing nurses who were eager to share their knowledge and experiences with me. My interactions with them strongly reminded me of why I was drawn to the nursing discipline. One of the nurses I talked with gave me a gift with the inscription, “Nurses are the true spirit of caring.” When I read that, I smiled at her and said, “I know that I am in the right profession.” This gift is special to me, and I posted it on my refrigerator to remind myself why I wanted to become a nurse.

While making the travel arrangements for the conference, Dr. Wilkie asked me whether it would be all right if we shared a room in the hotel. Initially, I was shocked and then embarrassed that I would be staying in such close proximity to my mentor. I was concerned that I would not be able to rest properly, because I would be constantly worried about being in her presence and about whether my snoring would disturb her. But I felt better when she told me that she had shared a room on a few occasions with her colleagues in the past and that she was very good at sharing.


My mentor arrived at the hotel a few hours before I did, because she had traveled from Washington, D.C. and I was traveling from Seattle. She checked into the room and was waiting for my arrival. She sent a cab for me at the airport and instructed the driver to call her on our way to the hotel so that she could meet us downstairs. When we arrived, Dr. Wilkie was waiting for us as she promised. She paid the driver and proceeded to help me with my luggage. We headed to the front desk so that I could check in.

Then something happened that humiliated me and upset my mentor. The receptionist at the front desk, who was an African-American woman, gave us a hard time about my checking into the same room with my mentor. She said that I could not stay in the room with Dr. Wilkie, and that my name was not in their computer. I politely explained to her that I was in my mentor’s office when she made the arrangement for the room, and that she had specifically asked for a room with double beds, to share with a colleague.

The receptionist did not even pay attention to me. Since I was too tired to argue with her, I kept quiet and let my mentor handle the situation. When the receptionist suggested that I get a different room, Dr. Wilkie sternly said to her, “I reserved this room for Miriam and me, and we will be rooming-in together.” The way she stressed the word “together” made the receptionist realize that my mentor was not going to concede.

The receptionist finally registered us to stay in the same room, because Dr. Wilkie insisted and was also ready to speak with the manager about the situation. I was baffled at how unpleasant this woman was to us. But throughout the entire process, my mentor remained poised, calm, professional and well mannered. I really admired her and I learned from her behavior. When we discussed the incident afterwards, I complimented her for the way she dealt with the problem. My mentor told me that in situations like that, there was no reason to raise one’s voice and that the best thing to do was to quietly insist.

I became self-conscious because of that incident, and also because my mentor and I received strange looks from people when we dined or walked together. I began to wonder when, if ever, this issue of “black and white” would ever be resolved.

I thought about all I had observed during my stay in Philadelphia and concluded that the “integration” we say we have achieved in America still has a long way to go in terms of its complete adoption. I also believe that separatism continues to be practiced in the United States, although very subtly. As a nation, we still constantly try to divide ourselves into separate groups–such as black and white, immigrant and non-immigrant, those who have an accent and those who don’t–instead of considering ourselves as one united people and celebrating our differences. And these differences will enrich our beautiful country.

Learning to Trust

Because I was initially so intimidated by my mentor’s accomplishments, I constantly felt inadequate around her, sometimes even stupid. I was terrified each time she introduced a new idea or new concept about my project, because I didn’t know how to proceed or elaborate that concept. Because I have always been in charge of my own affairs, including work and school schedules, since I came to America, I was concerned that I had no control over the pace or the direction of my project, or how to synthesize the different aspects of my project into a whole.

However, Dr. Wilkie always told me to trust that I knew enough to do what needed to be done, and she always encouraged me to come to her if I had any questions. She let me try to complete tasks on my own, then showed me more efficient and scientific processes for accomplishing the same task. Then she would tell me that people learn better after having tried on their own.

When I had accomplished the different parts of my project, my mentor carefully guided me through the synthesis, after I first tried to do it on my own. I gained a little more confidence each time she showed approval or complimented what I had done. When I wrote my report, she didn’t change my words but sometimes showed me a different way to reword it. Finally, I completed my project and was amused when my mentor admitted that she deliberately assigned some tasks to me because she knew that I would need those experiences to complete my entire project. At this realization, I appreciated her even more.

In working with Dr. Wilkie, I learned to trust her as a mentor who has my success at heart. This trust was earned because she guided me through the research process, trusting me even when I did not trust myself. As a result, I gained control of my project and I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.

Keeping an Open Mind

Ever since I participated in the STAR Program, I have made a point of learning from my daily encounters with people, ideas and experiences. During my summer research project, I made careful observations and analyses of individuals and events, and I have enriched my knowledge about people. I have also learned things about myself, and the learning process continues. By sharing my experience in this article, I hope to encourage other minority students to not be deterred by their fear of research and to be open-minded about working with someone outside of their own race or ethnicity.

The assumptions I had made about my mentor because she was white turned out to be totally wrong. Had I not persevered, I would not have had the chance to find out what a wonderful person she was and would have deprived myself of the opportunity to work with a world-renowned pain expert. Through her mentoring, I also learned not to give up before I even tried, and to try again if I wasn’t successful at first.

Dr. Wilkie also taught me that I could turn a “no” answer into a “yes” by following up on suggestions, feedback and constructive criticism. She once shared with me some of her own experiences with perseverance by saying, “Sometimes when I submitted a grant proposal, it was not funded at first. But I could not accept that decision.  So I used the suggestions provided by the reviewers, submitted it again and eventually it was funded.”

In summary, my experience in the STAR Program helped me grow and develop not just as a student and researcher but also as a person. When I returned to Hunter College in September 2002, I was determined to apply to graduate programs in nursing. I now have the confidence to follow my dream of becoming a minority nurse researcher.


The research project described in this article was supported by funding through NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute grant #5 T35 HL07763-10, UW  “Stipends for Training Aspiring Researchers” (STAR) Program. The Toolkit for Nurturing Excellence at the End-of-Life Transition (TNEEL) was developed at the University of Washington through a grant funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Diana J. Wilkie, RN, PhD, FAAN, Principal Investigator. This project was assisted by the following TNEEL team members: David Hughes, RN, BSN; Nai-Ying Ko, RN, PhC; and Hsien-Tzu Chen, RN, MS.