Safe Havens: Supporting Women and Minorities Through Mentoring and Merit Programs
When Joi Mondisa first arrived on the Illinois campus in the fall of 1996, she says, “The level of competitiveness completely threw me off guard.” She also felt academically and socially isolated as a black woman in an engineering program where white males vastly outnumbered women and African Americans.
Some fellow students even questioned her academic credentials, with one person bluntly asking, “So, did you get into this program due to affirmative action?”
It was a tough start. But when this ISE alum entered the Illinois Merit Program for Emerging Scholars, things began to change. The Merit Program is an academic program that focuses on recruiting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It targets students with high academic potential, and has them participate in community-based active learning during their freshman and sophomore years.
“We did the same coursework as everyone else, but we also did additional work, and we met in a group environment,” Mondisa recalls. “The Merit Program created a support base and lifelong friendships for me.”
This experience became one of the touchstones of her academic research, which has focused on how to better mentor students, particularly women and racial minorities. Recently, Mondisa began a new position as a professor in industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan, and she plans to build on her doctoral research, which examined ways to improve mentoring practices and programs.
After all, mentoring also played a major role in her life at Illinois. Mondisa says her mentor “was extremely supportive of me, academically and personally,” and he helped when she faced an especially difficult stretch during her junior year at Illinois. Her mother, whom she describes as her “pillar of support,” passed away that year, and Mondisa became the primary caretaker for her grandfather.
Mondisa grew up on the west side of Chicago before moving to Oak Park, where she was a top student at Oak Park and River Forest High School. She can point to the precise moment she decided she wanted to be an engineer. It was during her junior year in high school in 1995, when she attended an engineering camp for girls held at Southern Illinois University.
After she came home and told her parents she wanted to be an engineer, they were supportive, but they were also baffled because they didn’t know what an engineering career even looked like. Mondisa says she too had no idea until she attended that camp.
Many people assume that women and minorities do not choose STEM careers because they are not interested, she says. But in many cases it is because they have not been exposed to them, or they do not see role models that look like them in STEM fields.
“No one has introduced them or guided them or mentored them about these possible careers,” she says.
During her years at U of I, Mondisa became drawn to helping women and minorities grapple with the kinds of issues she had faced as an undergraduate. She worked as a counselor for Illinois’s weeklong GAMES (Girls’ Adventures in Math, Engineering, and Science) Camp. As she notes, “I now see that this camp was the first step in my desire to help young girls find out what they can do in engineering.”
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in general engineering from ISE in 2001, Mondisa entered industry and eventually began teaching as an adjunct faculty member in the Engineering Technology Department at Triton College in River Grove, Illinois. In 2012, she also co-directed GADgET (Girls’ Adventures in Design, Engineering, and Technology) Camp, a Triton College summer program for 12- to 16-year-old girls who are interested in STEM subjects. Bivouac Films even shot a short documentary about the camp.
“Young girls, between 12 and 14, are pretty confident about themselves in terms of their mathematical abilities, in terms of school,” Mondisa says in the documentary. “But then something happens.”
According to Mondisa, older teen girls become more conscious of their environment and their perceptions of themselves, and this can adversely impact their continued interest in STEM subjects.
As one girl in the documentary expressed it, “A lot of girls our age are afraid of their image around guys…They’re going to think I’m a nerd. They aren’t going to look at me.”
Programs such as summer camps for girls provide “a safe haven for them to think outside the box,” Mondisa says. There, they can “pick up a power drill and not be concerned that someone is going to laugh at you.”
Mondisa spent ten years in industry, working in manufacturing, operations, technical sales, and publishing. But ever since her Illinois days, she had always been drawn to research, so she left her full-time job in 2011 to pursue her master’s and PhD in engineering from Purdue University.
Upon completing her PhD, she became a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan. Then, in fall 2016, she assumed a position as assistant professor in the same department at Michigan, where she continues to conduct her engineering education research.
Mondisa’s research also focuses on designing and assessing learning experiences and examining the roles of resilience, grit, and persistence in engineering education, but she says, “Mentoring is the hub of my research.”
For women and racial minorities, one big question is whether it’s best to pair women mentors with women students and African American mentors with African American protégés, and so on. Mondisa says research supports both same-race and cross-cultural mentoring, and she believes that cross-cultural mentoring can be a vital part of the picture.
“It is important to have a variety of mentors with different experiences and different cultural capital that can help a protégé in different situations,” she says.
Cross-cultural mentoring certainly worked for Mondisa, whose mentor at Illinois was a white male. “He helped to spark my interest in research,” she says. Even today, she still regards Professor Emeritus Wayne Davis as a close mentor.
About Mondisa, Davis says:
It is difficult to express in words my admiration of Dr. Joi-Lynn Mondisa. Her pioneering accomplishment of being among the first female African-Americans to earn a PhD in evolving discipline of Engineering Education is another step in her professional evolution. Our friendship began with a call from my (recently deceased) friend, the late Dean Paul Parker. Dean Parker had suggested that I might serve as a mentor to an undergraduate female African-American engineering student who was participating in NSF sponsored initiative to encourage women and minority students to consider graduate studies in research.
Joi-Lynn was exceptional from the outset. Rather than participating in the execution of experiments, her desire was to explore technical writing, particularly the documentation of research. Her exceptionalness was further exemplified by her persistence in pursuing her engineering studies in the face of life challenges that would have stymied most. She used her personal challenges to intensify her need to succeed.
After graduation, Joi-Lynn decided to pursue a conventional engineering career but her desire to continue her profession education never diminished. She became involved with teaching at a junior college. Later she decided to enroll in the Master's program in Industrial Engineering and then doctoral research in Engineering Education. Not only has she excelled in engineering, she now seeks to convince other under-represented minorities that they too can excel in engineering.
As I mentioned earlier, Dean Paul Parker recently passed away. A few days ago I met Dean Parker’s former assistant. The News-Gazette had just published an article observing that nearly a quarter of the freshman engineering class is female. She asserted that our late “buddy” would be smiling. I then mentioned Joi-Lynn’s joining the faculty at the University of Michigan’s Industrial Engineering program. We both smiled. The late Dean Parker has a worthy successor—his dream has now become the life mission of Dr. Joi-Lynn Mondisa, a young undergraduate student that he introduced to me nearly two decades ago.
In addition to research and teaching, Mondisa serves as president and co-director of a non-profit organization, the No Longer Forgotten Network, which serves dialysis patients, as well as minority girls. Every year, Mondisa comes to Champaign to hand out gift bags with supplies for dialysis patients—an effort inspired by the experiences of both Mondisa and her co-founder. Both women had parents who underwent dialysis before passing away.
The No Longer Forgotten Network also awards scholarships to young African American girls to attend engineering summer camps—the kind of camps that changed Mondisa’s life.
“I’ve seen how my experiences have connected across my life, and I am grateful for the educational opportunities that I’ve had and how they have helped to shape me,” she says. “It’s been a nice journey.”
On November 3, from 4 to 5 p.m., in room 103 Transportation Building, Professor Joi Mondisa will return to campus to talk about her research on the experiences of African-American mentors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Her talk will focus on the individual experiences of African-American STEM mentors and the practices they use with their African-American protégés. “Using qualitative methods, this research reveals insights about mentoring experiences and practices and offers a language for talking about mentoring,” says Mondisa.The sem inar is a joint program sponsored by ISE and the Illinois Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education.