In Praise of Mentors
“Mentoring students is the most rewarding aspect of teaching.”
–Professor Julie King
“[Dr. Rowatt] has helped me to pursue academics successfully and be academically driven, and yet not have that be completely my identity.”
“[Dr. Shaw] has displayed that he cares about me and wants me to succeed, and that motivated me to give him my all.”
“[M]entors matter — a lot. They are a crucial bridge to success.”
“I hope I was able to play a small role in Juana’s ability to not just get through college but to thrive.”
–Dr. Julie deGraffenried
“It was very meaningful to me to have a woman professor notice me and say, ‘I think you can do this. I believe that you can go to grad school and be successful.'”
In his article “Mentors Matter” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Rodriguez writes, “[M]entors matter — a lot. They are a crucial bridge to success. It is just misleading to think that individual effort happens in a vacuum. Without mentors, many achievements would simply not be possible.”
At Baylor University, mentorship does matter — a lot. Under the Faculty Mentors link on the Center for Academic Success and Engagement website, there are names of more than 200 Baylor faculty members who are willing and eager to help students meet their academic goals. In the following article, seven students talk about how their faculty mentors at Baylor have made a difference in their lives.
Juana Anaya graduated from Baylor in the spring of 2022 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. She’s now part of a pre-enrollment Cohort Program at the University of Texas School of Law.
Just two years ago, Anaya graduated sixth in her class from Early College High School in the Tyler (Texas) Independent School District, and at the same time earned an associate’s degree from Tyler Junior College. She has pursued higher education while raising her three-year-old son, Isai.
“Dr. deGraffenried was so amazing. She made me realize that I had people here at Baylor who cared about me.”
Mentored by Dr. Julia deGraffenried
Despite her early successes, Anaya said she almost didn’t make it through her first semester at Baylor. That was in the fall of 2020, when social distancing guidelines were still in place, and everyone on campus was wearing masks. It wasn’t easy for her to make friends, and she hated being away from her young son, who was staying with her parents back in Tyler.
“I was actually ready to drop out of my classes at the time because I just couldn’t deal with it,” Anaya said.
But instead of dropping out, she reached out to history department chair Dr. Julie deGraffenried, who was teaching a New Student
Experience class for history majors in which Anaya was enrolled.
“Dr. deGraffenried was so amazing,” Anaya said. “She made me realize that I had people here at Baylor who cared about me. I felt so alone during the COVID era just because of the nature of everybody wearing masks, and we were really separated. But she was very nice to me, and considering all of my problems that I had going on, I got really close to her during that first semester because she helped me out a lot.”
After a few more classes the two spent together, deGraffenried took on the role of being a mentor to Anaya, which deGraffenried called “a privilege, not a right or a mandate, because of the interactive relationship involved.”
“I hope I was able to play a small role in Juana’s ability to not just get through college but to thrive,” deGraffenried said. “She helped me see the Baylor experience from a new and valuable perspective that has changed how I approach my work. No other student I’ve known in my 21 years at Baylor has worked so hard, taken on such a challenging workload at Baylor, and been so successful.”
For her part, Anaya is enjoying an ongoing mentor-mentee relationship with deGraffenried, who wrote one of Anaya’s recommendation letters for law school.
“Whether it’s just through emails or me making the drive over here, I feel like we’re going to have a connection that is never ending,” Anaya said. “It’s going to flourish even more. She says that she’s like a mom to me, even though I’m already a mom, too.”
When she was registering for her first year as a Baylor student, Susannah Bumstead should not have ended up in Dr. Wade Rowatt’s Psychology of Religion class. After all, it was an upper-level class, meant for more experienced students. Call it a rookie mistake.
“It was the first time I’d ever signed up for classes, and I got really messed up,” Bumstead said. “And my schedule was totally just not what it was supposed to be.”
“[Dr. Rowatt] said, ‘You know, you’ll be okay. I’ll help you through it.’”
Mentored by Dr. Wade Rowatt
After she registered, Bumstead contacted Rowatt to get his thoughts on whether a freshman like her should even try going ahead with that course.
“He said, ‘You know, you’ll be okay. I’ll help you through it,’” she said.
With her professor’s help and understanding, Bumstead made it through that class. After it was over, she asked Rowatt how she might take the next step and get involved in some research — not necessarily with him, but at least somewhere within the psychology department.
“He was kind enough to call me and invite me to be in his lab, and I’ve been a research assistant in his social psychology lab since my freshman year,” Bumstead said. She’s now a senior University Scholar with concentrations in psychology and religion, and is scheduled to graduate in May 2023. After that, she plans to enter a clinical mental health master’s degree program.
Completing that upper-level psychology class opened the door to forming a professional mentorship relationship with Rowatt, a professor of psychology in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.
“I am really passionate about the clinical side of psychology, which is not necessarily Dr. Rowatt’s area of research,” Bumstead said, “but he has been so kind to really look at that with me and allow me to pursue some of my own research within his lab. One semester, I did my own research project looking at intimate partner violence and PTSD, and he was just so helpful by helping me to look at the research process.”
Rowatt said that Bumstead “exemplifies curiosity and social-emotional skill we see in so many high-ability undergrads at Baylor.”
“Susannah is completing an honors thesis using data from a clinical psychologist about the effectiveness of exercise among veterans with PTSD,” he said. “She’s a great example of the apprentice-mentoring approach in our department generally, and my collaborative research psychology lab specifically.”
In addition to providing his students with academic mentoring, Bumstead said that Rowatt encourages them to take care of themselves outside of the laboratory environment.
“I definitely came into college as someone who was way too focused on academics in a way that wasn’t completely healthy,” Bumstead said. “He has helped me to pursue academics successfully and be academically driven, and yet not have that be completely my identity.”
Noah Cook has accomplished some firsts at Baylor. He’s believed to be the first totally blind student to major in chemistry, and chances are good that he’s the first blind student to ride a unicycle in the Homecoming parade.
Cook, a junior from San Antonio, was born with glaucoma and lost sight in one eye between his seventh and eighth grade years.
“I feel like he sees past blindness in a way and sees me for me. It’s just so important to feel included.”
Mentored by Dr. Bryan Shaw
“That put a lot of strain on my remaining eye, which was forced to deal with the glaucoma essentially by itself,” Cook said. “That became a gradual progression towards total blindness, which happened by the time I was a senior at Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering in San Antonio.”
Cook’s first semester of college, spent at another university in Texas, was difficult. Not only was he was dealing with his recent loss of sight, COVID was disrupting everything, and he wasn’t getting much help from his campus accessibility office. He contacted the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) in Austin, and teachers there put him in touch with Dr. Bryan Shaw, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor, whose lab was taking part in an outreach program with TSBVI.
“Dr. Shaw and I first met in person when I got accepted at Baylor, and he immediately showed me what was going on in his lab and how it could potentially help,” Cook said. “But first and foremost, he was there to make sure I was being accommodated. That was his first priority.”
Cook soon began working in Shaw’s lab, helping to figure out ways to convert conventional lab tools into equipment with tactile or audio formats that could be beneficial to visually impaired students.
“Noah has a huge desk in my lab surrounded by all sorts of tactile printers,” Shaw said. “He’s in lab every day.”
Shaw’s mentorship with Cook goes beyond just ensuring he gets proper accommodation. The two meet in Shaw’s lab each Saturday for an “hour of power,” as Shaw calls it, where they review Cook’s homework and assignments.
Cook is thankful that Shaw, whose lab has won numerous national awards and honors, is willing to work with a single student, one-on-one, to ensure his academic success.
“He’s displayed that he cares about me and wants me to succeed,” Cook said. “And that motivated me to give him my all. From the first semester, he went out of his way to take things down to the level of a freshman chemistry course just to help me. He’s doing all that because he wants me to be successful, and to show that I’m able to be included.”
Telling Cook’s Baylor story would not be complete without mentioning “the unicycle thing.” He met members of the student club called the Unicycle Academy at Baylor and told them, “I’ll join if you can ride a unicycle with your eyes closed.” They told him he could, so he joined.
Cook said his experience with the unicyclists is akin to his work with Shaw.
“It’s somewhat related to what I do with Dr. Shaw because I feel like he sees past blindness in a way and sees me for me,” Cook said. “I feel like these guys in the club do that as well. It’s just so important to feel included.”
It wasn’t long after Ayla Dodson-Hestand started a law internship one summer while at Baylor that she realized she had no real desire to be a lawyer. Law was one of the expected routes for her as a political science major, but it just wasn’t for her. So, she decided she would continue her studies in political science but eventually aim for graduate school.
But, she also remembers thinking, “I’m a first-generation undergrad. I have no idea what graduate school entails or how I to go about applying for that.”
“Rebecca Flavin introduced me to Rutgers, I couldn’t have gotten here — I wouldn’t have even known about the program — if it wasn’t for her.”
Mentored by Drs. Pat and Rebecca Flavin
That’s where Pat and Rebecca Flavin — married political science faculty members at Baylor — came to the rescue. Dr. Rebecca Flavin is a senior lecturer and undergraduate program director in political science, while Dr. Pat Flavin is the Bob Bullock Professor of Political Science.
Dodson-Hestand met with Rebecca Flavin and told her she wanted to attend graduate school, but knew little about how to get there. To prepare her, Rebecca arranged for Dodson-Hestand to take one of her husband Pat’s classes as well as complete an independent study project with him.
“The Flavins would meet with me every week or so, to talk about classes, and I’d work on my independent study,” Dodson-Hestand said. “They helped me with the whole process of applying for grad school, including writing recommendation letters for me.”
All this work paid off for Dodson-Hestand, who completed minors in women’s and gender studies, poverty studies and social justice at Baylor and was also in the Honors Program. She’s now at Rutgers University, working toward completing a Ph.D. in political science in 2027.
“Rebecca Flavin introduced me to Rutgers, because I hadn’t heard of it before,” Dodson-Hestand said. “I didn’t know Rutgers had its Center for American Women and Politics — the only program in the country that has women and politics as a major subfield you can focus on. I couldn’t have gotten here — I wouldn’t have even known about the program — if it wasn’t for her.”
The focus on women and politics that guides Dodson-Hestand in her graduate studies at Rutgers was sparked by a research project she completed for Pat Flavin’s Scope and Methods in Political Science class.
“I wanted to look at the ways women candidates were perceived, if they were perceived as more promiscuous compared to male candidates, and if they were judged more harshly,” she said. “Pat helped a lot with that.”
In the long run, Dodson-Hestand hopes to inspire other women studying political science like Rebecca Flavin did for her.
“Dr. Flavin was one of two female professors I had in Baylor’s political science department,” Dodson-Hestand said. “It was very meaningful to me to have a woman professor notice me and say, ‘I think you can do this. I believe that you can go to grad school and be successful.’ I want to be able to provide that support for other young women who are interested in the field.”
Rebecca Flavin said that being a first-generation college student herself — one who also thought she was headed to law school at one point — helped make it possible for her to be a mentor to Dodson-Hestand.
“It was a gift to be able to walk with Ayla through the graduate school application process and to affirm to her, as my professors did for me,” Flavin said. “She is talented and well-suited for graduate work, and people like her are needed in higher education.”
Being a mentor seems to be a natural fit for Jorge Martinez-Ortiz, a December 2022 Baylor graduate. When he was taking Dr. Lorin Matthew’s sophomore-level Mathematics and Computational Physics class in the Spring 2021 semester, he could often be found explaining homework solutions and programming assignments to his classmates. Matthews ended up offered him a research position in her lab for the following summer.
Matthews, a professor of physics and chair of the department, said she issued the invitation to her lab after Martinez-Ortiz showed initiative.
“When he expressed an interest in my research, I was very happy to have him join my research group,” she said. “I love working with students who dive in and make projects their own, because they end up teaching me new techniques.”
Today, Martinez-Ortiz is leading other students in a project that uses computational physics to simulate plasmas, and he’s using the mentoring techniques he learned from Matthews.
“I’ve learned how to show these things to people who have never done simulations or computational work,” he said. “I’m trying to be very patient and understanding since everyone is so different in terms of what they’re interested in and are able to do in the research. I’m giving them the freedom to find their own area of expertise that they can excel at.”
Because of mentorship from Matthews, Martinez-Ortiz was able to present a research poster as an undergraduate student at the American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics national conference in Spokane, Washington, in October 2022.
“The poster concerned the simulation that I am working on with Dr. Matthews,” Martinez-Ortiz said. “I basically presented the event, the advantages of the simulation, what it’s able to do now and what it’s going to be able to allow us to do in terms of research in the future.”
The future for Martinez-Ortiz, a senior from Mexico, involves graduate school in computational science and engineering, then most likely a career in industry or research at a national laboratory.
Even though he’s not sure yet where his professional career will take him, Martinez-Ortiz said he wouldn’t be on the path without the guidance Matthews gave him.
“I was pretty lost as a freshman,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. When she approached me and offered me that lab position, it gave me a plan I could follow while I was at Baylor. I would have been a lot more lost if I hadn’t had the opportunity she gave me.”
Travis Pierce wasn’t planning on living in North Russell Hall while attending Baylor. As an incoming freshman with an interest in science, he figured he would end up a part of the Science and Health Living Learning Center in Earle Residence Hall, or in another residence hall close to the Baylor Sciences Building where most of his classes would be held.
But Pierce ended up across campus at North Russell with nearly 400 other members of the Baylor & Beyond Living and Learning Center. And that’s where he learned of the German Neighborhood, a group of students interested in studying the language and culture of Germany.
“[Dr. Good] really helped me decide where to take my education.”
Mentored by Dr. Jennifer Good
This was somewhat familiar territory for Pierce, a first-generation college student whose paternal great-great-great-grandfather immigrated from Germany. The German language and culture were passed down through generations of his family.
There wasn’t a great deal of language diversity where Pierce grew up in Santa Barbara, California.
“What you could learn in my high school was mainly Spanish, but I was interested in pursuing German to meet my language requirement at Baylor. I just fell in love with the language and the faculty and the culture,” he said.
Once Pierce began his German classes at Baylor and became involved with the German Neighborhood, he met Dr. Jennifer Good, associate professor of German and division director of German and Russian in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures. Good also lived at North Russell Hall, serving as faculty-in-residence there when Pierce was a freshman.
“From our first meeting, I could tell that Travis had the enthusiasm
and desire to invest in community and get involved by engaging with activities and people around campus,” Good said. “In his studies he worked hard, and also took part in co-curricular activities such as Kaffeestunde — a weekly German language coffee hour — as well as German Club and German film nights.”
“She really helped me decide where to take my education in German and advised me which classes would be good,” Pierce said. “We really started to form a close relationship when I became president of German Club, and she and I worked together to make the club events meaningful.”
Good later helped Pierce apply for a Fulbright scholarship and prepare for graduate school. Pierce, who graduated from Baylor in December 2022 with a major in biology and a secondary major in German, also received Good’s help with preparing a presentation for a German Studies Association conference in Houston in the fall of 2022.
“I did a paper on the transformation of German rivers before and after reunification, and she helped me through all the steps — getting into the conference, choosing a topic, and helping me with some of the research articles and proofreading as well,” Pierce said.
“Over the semesters, Travis and I often discussed Germany’s strong policies and advocacy protecting the environment,” Good said.
Without all the mentoring and encouragement from Dr. Good, “I might have just finished German off as a language requirement and not even thought about taking it again,” Pierce said.
Isha Thapar has stayed busy during her time at Baylor. She’s a University Scholar major with minors in biochemistry, environmental studies and medical humanities. During her time on campus, she has also started an organization called Students for Environmental Equity. So, it’s probably no surprise that she’s headed to medical school, having been accepted to a number of programs.
Thapar, a senior from Houston, knew when she came to Baylor that she would be a pre-med student with a focus in pediatrics.
“[Dr. King} has helped me so much. She's played a pivotal role in finding my niche.”
Mentored by Professor Julie King
“I’m now really interested in pediatric environmental health,” she said. “I’ve been able to connect my initial interest in pediatrics with my newfound interest in environmental health.”
Thapar became interested in environmental health when she was a student in Professor Julie King’s environmental political processes class, and was bolstered later by taking King’s Environmental Law course.
“I got interested in the policy aspect,” Thapar said. “I wanted to see if there was a way that undergrads can lobby and advocate for these public health policy changes.”
That’s when she was inspired to found the group Students for Environmental Equity at Baylor. King, a senior lecturer and undergraduate program director in environmental law, agreed to be the group’s faculty sponsor.
King, Thapar and fellow Honors student Eliana Stromberg are also working together on a submission for the American Chemical Society’s environmental justice symposium this spring. It’s an abstract titled “Exposure of Vulnerable Communities to PFAS in Drinking Water: An Issue of Environmental Justice.”
“We’re looking at the contamination and spatial mapping of PFAS (human-made chemicals used in consumer and industrial products),” Thapar said. “We’re looking at emerging contaminants called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that we found to be disproportionate in drinking water of marginalized communities.”
Thapar appreciates that King not only helped her gain an interest in environmental health but also “continually mentored me as I learned more about it and became a big environmental health advocate, and she’s helped me so much in that journey. She played a pivotal role in finding my niche.”
From King’s viewpoint, working with dedicated students such as Thapar is one of the highlights of her faculty position at Baylor.
“Mentoring students is the most rewarding aspect of teaching,” King said. “It’s the opportunity to walk alongside students outside of the classroom, being a support and guide for them.”