Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar, University of California, Los AngelesFollow this author
A “mentor” is an experienced and trusted advisor. A “mentee” is an individual who is advised by a mentor. As mentors, we help others by sharing our seasoned experiences. As mentees, our mentors give us a glimpse of our future. But what happens when there are not enough health professional mentors?
As the son of Mexican immigrants, I grew up in a low-income community in Los Angeles, California. My parents worked in tough laborious service jobs and they lived in constant fear of losing their livelihood because their “unwanted mentors” who supervised them punished them when they made a mistake. My parents viewed mentoring with caution and did not trust these mentors to help them with their career dreams.
My schoolteachers, counselors, and administrative staff were my “hidden mentors” outside of home. I had to get good grades to keep these mentors happy. My humility and their authority discouraged me from asking for help. As I advanced in my science and math classes, the coursework was more difficult and I would often disappoint my hidden mentors. My parents would always encourage me to do better – with the hopes that I would figure it out on my own. After all, they had only completed a 2nd grade education in their home country.
During healthcare emergencies, my family went to the public county hospital and none of the doctors or nurses looked like us or spoke our language. I was amazed by these healers and saw them as “unreachable mentors.” My parents would say: “Mijo, keep working hard in school and maybe someday you can also be a doctor to take care of us.” I would sigh and also hope that this would be the case.
While we all want a “real mentor” and want to be mentored, our understanding of mentoring is different depending on our life experiences. Our understanding of mentoring is deeply rooted in our history, culture and life experiences. To make mentoring work, we must take the time to learn how to mentor and be mentored.
As a physician and mentor to many aspiring healthcare professionals, I have learned more about my own reservations and challenges with mentors. This has helped me provide a richer mentoring experience for my mentees. I would like to share several valuable lessons that I have learned during this mentoring journey.
To improve the mentoring experiences for Latino students who want to enter a field like medicine, I recommend that you:
Understand what mentoring means in the context of your mentee’s family and community background
Focus on getting your mentee comfortable with a beneficial mentoring experience
Be open to learning about your own personal experiences or reservations as mentors, while also exploring your mentees struggles with mentoring
When asked to be mentors, we all begin with an ambitious goal of making sure our mentees get perfect grades and exam scores. We want to quickly shape up our mentees into a success. If we see results, we stay motivated, engaged and find ways to overcome more challenges. If we do not see results, everyone begins to lose interest and we run out of exciting things to talk about with our mentees.
To maintain a meaningful and long-lasting mentoring relationship with your mentees, I recommend that you:
Given the challenges and unfamiliarity that a science or health profession poses, our students will have a strong tendency to shy away from these fields even when they have the talent and skills to do very well. As mentors, we have to constantly work to make sure they do not fall into the same pattern of feeling like pursuing this career is impossible. We have to avoid becoming “tormentors” who manage to mentor students away from realizing their dreams. We have to be comfortable seeking help with mentoring and find other motivated mentors to step in when we need help mentoring.
These mentoring lessons have motivated a group of students, healthcare professionals, and myself to build an engaging online mentoring community for aspiring healthcare professionals, www.mimentor.org. Our goal is to help students and healthcare professionals learn more about mentoring, while connecting them to various professional mentoring resources and opportunities.
I firmly believe that mentoring is fundamental to increasing the representation of Latinos in medicine. Latino physicians make up 5% of the U.S. physician workforce, while nearly 50% of Latino students that graduate from high school are going to college. To effectively mentor the next generation of physicians, we must work together with our teachers, professors, counselors, advisors, and families. When my parent’s friends comment that they are “proud of my accomplishments,” I always let them know that “it took a village” of “real mentors” to get me to where I am today.