Role Models and Influencers for Students of All Backgrounds
Watching the TV news with her Caucasian dorm mates, the African-American undergraduate cringed with embarrassment every time a handcuffed Black man in police custody was shown.
“It feels like the criminal represents all of us,” she would later remark.
She contrasted that feeling with the day she found an African-American woman standing in front of her management class—her first professor of color.
“This feels different,” she told the teacher. “I hope you don’t mind if I say I am proud of you even if you don’t represent all of us, because in a way you do.
“I think that I will try and do something better with my life like you did.”
The PhD Project was founded in 1994 with the goal of creating thousands more scenarios like the experience described above. Since then, it has more than quadrupled the number of African-American, Hispanic American and Native American business school professors.
An immediately obvious way these nearly 1,400 minority professors make an impact is just by being who they are. As minorities, they are role models to countless students of color. They are also changing the attitudes of majority students, who may never have had a teacher of color at any level and are unprepared for the diverse work world they will soon enter.
“Professors are role models,” says one of the 1,400, Dr. Oscar Holmes IV of the Rutgers School of Business. “While people can inspire others no matter their identities, it is important and special for people to be inspired by someone who shares their important identities…There is no way to quantify the value this creates for the professor and the student.”
Many minority students enter college with no role models in their family or community with an academic or professional background. Something changes in them when they see a person of color who is a business professor.
Dr. Lisa Ordóñez, vice dean and management professor at the University of Arizona, is one of many PhD Project professors who has heard a minority student say, “You’re the first professor of color I’ve ever had.”
Dr. Ordóñez has never forgotten the young woman who told her after a class, “I want to do what you’re doing, because if you can do it—I can do it.”
Students without professional role models “don’t have someone telling them what is the next step in life—how to apply to colleges,” adds Dr. Ordóñez, who had no such role models as the daughter of two migrant workers who did not finish high school.
PhD Project Professor Dr. Carliss Miller of Sam Houston State University tells how students at the 50 percent minority school “look at me in amazement” on the first day of class. Even in her first year as a professor, she recalls, “I’ve seen my presence making a difference already in ways that I didn’t imagine.”
But, she notes, “It is eye-opening to see my influence is not just on students who look like me, but all students.”
Like many PhD Project professors, Dr. Miller has influenced the attitudes of Caucasian students. The change begins when they see a professor of color in their class, perhaps for the first time, and it grows when they learn of her impressive prior career as a brand manager for Procter & Gamble.
White students who grew up not seeing minorities as professionals or academics will be unprepared for jobs in corporate America, where working in diverse teams to serve diverse customers is the norm. The presence of PhD Project professors is preparing them.
In an end-of-semester email to a female African-American professor, a white student, so admittedly prejudiced that he had considered dropping the class upon discovering her race and gender, wrote, “You really made me think not only about the class stuff, but about why we think the way we do about people without really knowing them.”
This student appeared to need further work to shed his biases, but he told this professor her class was the best he had ever taken “and I wish all my teachers were like you.”
It was perhaps a small step, but larger ones, and many of them, are occurring on college campuses across the country as the alumni of The PhD Project make their presence felt.