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Mentoring A Two-Way Street For Lee

Published: January 23, 2017

Cheryl Lee always found herself mentoring others, even at her first job as a supervisor and training instructor for the phone company in Washington, D.C. She began working as a social worker in the late 1970s and, after obtaining her master’s degree and Ph.D. in social work from Arizona State University, she was attracted to academia.

“It’s a natural place to mentor because students are always looking for connection to the university and guidance,” said Lee.

She first taught and conducted research on children of divorce at her alma mater and spearheaded a social action group through her job at the Arizona Supreme Court. The goal was to educate parents going through divorce on their children’s needs. The group was instrumental in passing a law called Domestic Relations Education on Children’s Issues in 1996 which required divorcing and separating couples with children to go through a parent education and family stabilization course. The course not only refocuses parents’ attention to the needs of their children, but also mentors them through the depression and anger that come with divorce and separation.

“It took a large group to pass that law over a two-year period,” said Lee. “I learned there’s a lot of value in a team of diverse people working together in a group.”

Now a professor of social work at CSULB, Lee began teaching on campus in 2000 and she brought the group mentoring model with her. She soon announced her availability for mentoring in one of her evening social work classes and was surprised at the number of students who expressed interest. Seven students signed up right away and Lee began a group mentoring program that held substantial benefits for the students.

In addition to receiving advice from her, the students began mentoring each other and eventually turned the group into a club. Many of the students enrolled in her evening class were so busy with work, children and other responsibilities that they were unable to join traditional clubs on campus. Through this peer mentoring and group work club, the students began to feel more connected to each other and to the CSULB community.

For 13 years, Lee also volunteered with Partners for Success, a mentorship program at CSULB that focuses on first-generation college students. In that program, students and faculty work together to improve academic achievement, retention and graduation rates of its participants. She met with these students in individual sessions as well as in groups. Lee cites the importance of encouragement and support, especially with first-generation college students.

“Students whose parents have never been to college may not get the assistance they need because their parents may not know how to help them succeed at the university,” said Lee.

During her time at CSULB, Lee has personally mentored a number of first-generation students and helped them to realize their full potential. One such student, Kristen Gustavson, came to her for help with her graduate thesis on geriatric social work. In addition to mentoring Gustavson, Lee helped her publish her first scholarly article related to her thesis topic and encouraged her to further her education. Gustavson went on to receive her doctorate from UC Berkeley and is now the executive director of Berkeley Christian Counselors in the San Francisco area.

“She was excellent and knew just about everything there was to know about older adults,” said Lee. “But it had never occurred to her that she could get her Ph.D.”

Cheryl Lee with mentees Mei Kameda and Maria Gandarilla
Cheryl Lee (c) with a pair of her mentees—Mei Kameda (l) and Maria Gandarilla.

Another first-generation student Lee worked with was Cecilia Ayon, a thesis student focusing on abused and neglected children in the child welfare system. They collaborated with Barbara Solomon, a renowned figure in social work, to do a project on family preservation in the child welfare system. Lee and Ayon published several scholarly articles together, and Ayon went on to get her Ph.D. from the University of Washington. She is now an associate professor of public policy at UC Riverside and an expert in Latino child welfare.

“First-generation college students are amazing,” said Lee. “But sometimes it doesn’t occur to them that they have all these strengths, so they need someone to point them out.”

Lee’s work, however, extends beyond first-generation college students; she lends her ear to people in need. She organized an interpersonal dialogue group for undergraduate students with and without disabilities in order to foster understanding between the students. She also facilitated a technology-mediated mentoring support group for professors from all over the country.

Lee has conducted research on why mentoring in groups is an especially good model, often using her experience with past groups to publish books and articles on her findings. In one of her research papers on the topic, she discussed how the mutual aid theory provides a conceptual framework for group mentoring. The leader mediates and provides a vision while the mentees hold each other accountable and share resources, benefiting all members including the mentor.

Lee says the accomplishments of students and the positive feelings that come with helping someone else are her reasons for being a mentor for so long and to so many people. She cites the theory of altruism, which says that individuals are morally obligated to benefit others. The research evidence demonstrates that they ultimately help themselves in this process.

“Mentoring is a two-way street,” said Lee. “I learn a lot from mentees. They share their challenges, hopes, energy and new ideas, and I share my wisdom, creativity and passion to help them succeed.”

January is National Mentoring Month