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Mentors Serve Whom?

Updated: Jul 21, 2019


Mentoring, like teaching, is an honorable activity and many of us are called to one or both because we believe we can help, and we can make a difference in someone’s life by doing so. I taught at the community college level (evenings and Saturday mornings) for 16 years because I not only loved teaching, but I wanted to give back to those who were motivated enough to go to school at night and those who didn’t have the money to pay tuition at four-year colleges.


Yes, I taught those who had problems with English as their second language, who needed to use dictionaries in their native language while taking tests and those we would call the “underclass” or “underprivileged.” And, in addition to that, I wanted to be a “success story” for all of them.


Although it might sound quite pretentious, I do consider myself a success story because of the circumstances of both my birth and my perseverance toward the goal that took more decades to achieve then I want to think. I wanted my students, many of whom had worked so hard during the day and dragged themselves to school at night until 10 PM when they would go home, to be inspired. I wanted to give them the spark of hope that would keep them going on and, in all honesty, I truly believed that I achieved that goal.


Teaching at night, as an adjunct, is a struggle for anyone who chooses that path. The struggle is maintained because, although we are contractually promising to keep “office hours”, we have no true office. My “office” was the evening office at the school, which was manned, for part of the evening, by a secretary and an evening dean. I had no desk, nowhere to keep files and nothing more than a bit of furniture which contained folders for each adjunct instructor.


Inside my folder would be anything of importance that the school or the evening dean believed I needed to see such as grade reports or other information to be distributed to my students. I was, in fact, still being treated as a second-class citizen within the academic community although I knew that at least 60% of all the courses were taught by underpaid adjuncts. The pay, also, was a point of contention because some instructors, especially in nursing, were paid at least 30% more than me even though I had a doctorate in psychology and was licensed as such.


My mission, therefore, was not to earn a lot of money, but to stimulate a lot of minds and to create excitement for the possibilities that the future held if you stuck to your goal, worked hard and kept at it despite any impediment that might be thrown into your path. Of course, one of the impediments that the students had, was student loans.

Student loans didn’t come easily and, even when they came, there was always this balloon payment that was looming on the day of their graduation and the letter that would come congratulating them on their degree and asking for their first repayment of the loan.


Mind you, many of these students may have gotten a degree, but that didn’t mean that they had gotten a job in that area, nor that they were being paid a wage that enabled them to weekly begin repaying the loan. Banks didn’t same to have that much empathy for people who were not willing to immediate pay loans back.


The students were caught by a double-edged sword; society said they needed a degree, but they couldn’t afford to immediately pay the loans. What to do? I have no idea what many of them did, but I do know that the dropout rate was probably a result of both. Any student looking down the road at a bank officer waiting with the letter to demand payment on graduation would surely have felt a degree of great concern. Today, people have to pick between buying medication or food. When I was teaching, they had to make a decision between going to school, paying for food and supporting their family; most of them were married with children.


According to the National Center for Educational Statistics updated in February 2019 “…the overall college enrollment rate for young adults increased from 35% in 2000 to 40% in 2017. In 2017, the college enrollment rate was higher for Asians (65%) young adults than for white (41%), Blacks (36%), and Hispanic (36%) young adults.”


Community colleges, according to Homeroom, the official blog of the US Department of Education, are seen as the economic engines of America. Their blog deems them “…the gateways to middle-class and their open-access programs as holding the key to college access, affordability and completion for millions of students from every walk of life.”

Many of my students were not young, were primarily Hispanic, and easily approaching their middle-age. Some were into their pre-senior years, but all of them had one thing in common; they wanted a college degree. A sufficient number of them had never been able to afford school at an earlier age and had to accept manual-labor jobs and believed that they had more potential in them and that opportunities would still be afforded to them. One student a woman in her early 60s, who approached my desk after a class, asked if I thought she would be able to complete the course; she had had a stroke. I reassured her that I would help in any way I could, and I had a belief that she could succeed. She did and received, as I recall a B+.


I had to applaud my students belief in the American system of education and economics. For this reason, I felt I had a mandate to encourage them to continue to learn and to seek out every opportunity that they could and to never believe that they were incapable of learning. As I said to every beginning class on the first evening, “It isn’t that you cannot learn something, it is that I as your instructor or other instructors or teachers in the past failed to find a way for you to be able to understand the concepts in the curriculum. It is our job to make it possible for you to learn whatever you need to succeed.”

Whenever possible, I brought in my own educational and career journey to provide illustrations of how I, too, had not come to this time of my life by an easy path. I was assisted in high school by an older sister who encouraged me, even when it seemed like it was impossible to call it encouragement. An example would have been when I received and 87 on a test and she would ask, “Where’s the other 13 points?”


Yes, she wanted me to succeed and she didn’t want me to slack off. One of the reasons was that, in my entire extended family, I was to be the first one to graduate from high school and now I was on my way to college without any financial support behind me.

The New York City University system provided me that opportunity to receive a college education at a ridiculously low cost; $64 a term for as many courses as I could fit in on my evening schedule. Yes, I took all three of my degrees in the evening while I worked full-time during the day and I told my students this in order to help them see me in a more realistic light and also the possibility for themselves. I also wanted them to see that psychologists weren’t all men with beards who wore three-piece suits.


The good mentor serves the student best when they encourage but also help the student see where critical thinking must be used and not everything is to be swallowed whole because an “expert” or major person in the field said it was so. I would encourage them to question any and all of the giants of psychology and point them to both the theoretical flaws and the flawed personalities and ethical violations of any that came to mind or popped up in my own reading.


In that, I, along with my students, was learning and that was another area of emphasis; learning is fluid and allowance must be made for re-evaluation of what we have learned. Who would have suspected that not everything in the human body had been discovered? We now know we’re still learning as a new portion of the immune system was discovered and named the glymphatic system as well as a new brain cell (the rose bud cell) and a new nerve connection between the brain and the foot and a new bone in the body.


The experiences I had with my student and mentees (on the post-graduate level) were positive with one or two exceptions. One exception was when I was on a dissertation reader and read a portion of a dissertation that stopped me short. The student was mediocre, yet this portion was even more abstract than I could understand (it was statistics). I did a search using plagiarism software and it turned up a paper that was copied almost word-for-word into her manuscript. I approached her dissertation chair, a retired dean from a large university, who emphatically told me that couldn’t be true because she was such a good student. Talk about exaggeration? This was a blatant lie because anyone looking at her barely-passing grades and dismal GPA could tell the student was in way over her head and should not have been in a doctoral program. I disagreed and resigned as a reader on that dissertation.


How was that instructor functioning as a mentor when she was colluding in plagiarism? She knew that this student would use this degree for advancement in her primary school system and that would be to the disadvantage of the students there. Her role in deciding curriculum and school placements for teachers was powerful, yet she had gained that authority by cheating and her mentor facilitated this fraud. Shortly thereafter I became aware of other instances of blatant plagiarism in other areas of the school and where one student was given a prime administrative position after graduation. The travesty was too much for me and I resigned that semester.


All of our mentors, educators and school administrators on every level must be held accountable to the task of upholding honesty in education. We owe it to our students who work hard to succeed, and we can ask no less of ourselves.


Now, I’ve seen that student loans, the most frightening burden this country will soon come to face (it could be in the billions), will place an even heavier load on our underprivileged students. For-profit colleges, the schools that were supposed to have a mission statement of making advanced education available to all, have bled the system and deceived the students. The dropout rate is startlingly high as related in a September 2017 article in Slate. The group being targeted to attend is made up, to a large extent, of single mothers.


The article states: “These students have been victimized by a predatory system that’s an embarrassment to higher education in America,” he told me in a phone interview. “The data on the job prospects and earnings pretty much show that a for-profit degree doesn’t give you any advantage.” The average six-year graduation rate among for-profit colleges is 23 percent, compared to 59 percent at public institutions and 66 percent at private nonprofit schools. And because for-profit degrees usually cost far more than comparable degrees from community colleges and public universities, students who attend for-profit schools are more likely to have to take out loans to afford their education. They are also far more likely to default on those loans than those who attended nonprofit or public institutions, in part because the economic benefits conferred upon those with other college degrees don’t transfer to graduates from for-profit schools.”


Where are the mentors and are they doing their job or going with the flow and accepting a paycheck for doing poor-quality work? I think back to that plagiarized dissertation and the former dean chastising me for questioning her student. I know what the answer would be if I were to question.

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DR. PATRICIA A. FARRELL