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Unsung Heroes of Mentoring

Helping students came naturally to this trio of mentors whose caring personalities have made them stand out in the USF African American community.

By Barbara Melendez
     USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (March 03, 2016) – A couple of outstanding examples of generous informal mentoring are the current Director of Diversity Program in the College of Engineering Bernard Batson and two retired USF staffers, former USF Ombudsman Samuel L. Wright, Jr. and former USF Student Affairs Administrative Assistant Wanda Mundy among many others.

Mundy points with pride to her “University sons and daughters” who have stayed in touch with her over the years. Among them is USF alumnus District 61 State Representative Ed Narain (for full story click here).

Wright could barely walk anywhere on campus without being greeted and stopped by the many students who benefited from his guidance and advice. The majority came to him by way of his role as the person to contact in order to find a way to avoid dropping out of school. But almost as many benefited from his counseling skills on an informal basis. If he could help someone, he was glad to do so.

Each and every day Batson works tirelessly to make sure students continue on the path to success. Through the USF Ronald E. McNair Fellowship Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program, Batson has assisted underrepresented students for more than 15 years. Many former students recall his helpful advice.

In his current role as director of diversity programs in the College of Engineering, he also serves as academic coordinator for the Florida-Georgia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (FGLSAMP) Bridge to the Doctorate Activity and the Arthur P. Sloan Foundation University Center for Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) program and continues to look out for students.

His impact has not gone unnoticed.

Batson received the Mentor of the Year Award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in 2013 and the Mentor on the Map Award at the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) conference in 2015.

It’s not unusual for Batson to hear from former students out of the blue. For example, more than ten years after graduating from USF, Dionne Vernon recently visited the campus to update him on her progress.

After going on to earn a doctoral degree in physical therapy from Washington University, St. Louis, and working in sports medicine and orthopedics, she became the physical therapist for the touring company of “The Lion King.” A few months ago in an email she wrote Batson, “I hope all is well with you. I'm sure you are still inspiring minority students to go for the gold in their education and careers." 

Ana Isabel Rioja, originally from Peru, is now working on a biomedical engineering doctorate at the University of Michigan after earning her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in biomedical engineering. She stays in touch.

“I tend to think of a good mentor as another parent in your life. Someone who cares for their students’ success; keeping a look out for opportunities that will benefit their mentee,” she said. “When Mr. Batson attended a conference and saw a company that one of his students could be a great fit, he would approach the company representatives and talk about how great his student was - kind of like a parent would.”

She added, “A good mentor will also encourage you to do things that you thought you couldn't do and will check on you once in a while to see if you need help. A great mentor is someone you trust and feel comfortable with because at the end of the day, you know he or she wants you to succeed and be great at what you do.

“I hope someday I can be as good a mentor as he is, and have the opportunity to impact someone else’s life the way he has done for many of us.”

Javier Pulecio, Ph.D., a National Science Foundation FGLSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate Fellow and Sloan Scholar earned his doctorate in electrical engineering in 2010 while working with Associate Professor Sanjukta Bhanja, Ph.D. He has worked as a post doc for Brookhaven National Laboratory and the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s electromagnetics division in Boulder, CO. Although it has been several years since his graduation, he includes Batson among those he consults in the review of his applications for faculty positions.

Through the FGLSAMP and Sloan programs, Kathryn Bailey, Ph.D., earned a master’s degree in marine science in 2007 and transitioned to engineering science in the College of Engineering to earn her Ph.D. in 2012.

“I believe that every graduate student, regardless of their race or ethnicity, needs a support system in order to be successful,” she said. “His mentorship and guidance have had a tremendous impact on my life and career. I would likely not have my PhD without Mr. Batson. I would never have conducted research at three national labs (Brookhaven National Lab, Pacific Northwest National Lab and Oak Ridge National Lab) without Mr. Batson.”

Bailey notes that what is “so great about Mr. Batson, he is always mindful of every student he interacts with in terms of their goals and aspirations. This doesn't end once we graduate either. While I was a postdoc at Oak Ridge National Laboratory it was Mr. Batson that sent me the job announcement for my current position as a research microbiologist.”

Summing up what makes Batson stand out, Bailey said, “He understood the difficulties that minority students face in graduate school and so he created a safe place where we could connect with and learn from other students who have similar backgrounds and who were going through similar situations. He comforted me whenever I cried, he let me yell when I was angry, and he helped me devise a plan when I was frustrated with a situation and couldn't find a way out.”

Batson who prefers the spotlight go to students rather than himself lights up at the chance to talk about his work.

"I have enjoyed helping students realize their potential and dreams by receiving opportunities that they may have never thought possible. For example, through my work with LINK, we have helped students not only participate in undergraduate research both move through and complete their Ph.D.'s."

He added, "I think a good mentor is someone who always has the best interests of the students in mind even when it is not obvious to them. My father was an elementary school principal and remains an inspiration. Throughout his life, he had a passion for helping young people achieve their dreams through education especially during the era of segregation. I think about what he, as well as others, had to overcome not very long ago in the South.  It serves as motivation for me when helping students pursue opportunities they might never have though possible. I have learned from role moles like Drs. Samuel Wright, Joan Holmes and Ted Williams and through the support of our past and current programs. It has truly been a privilege to be at USF."

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