PRBA’s tradition of mentorship

photo by Michael McIntyre

photo by Michael McIntyre

By Theresa Frasca

Established in 1976, the early days of Program for Research on Black Americans (PRBA) were long ones. As the nation’s first university-based research and training program to study the black community’s issues and concerns, PRBA broke exciting new ground thanks to a devoted team and its tireless leader, James S. Jackson.

“We worked like madmen and -women to get it off the ground, and we did everything ourselves,” says M. Belinda Tucker, one of Jackson’s first students and a social psychologist and professor at UCLA. “We made and shipped the questionnaires by hand. We conducted the pre-tests ourselves in Detroit and Alabama: scouting, hiring and training interviewers, conducting interviews, coding, you name it. There was no better place to learn the craft of survey research.”

But beyond the important hands-on experience, PRBA’s early members also established a lasting legacy — one of mentorship.

Jackson, U-M’s first full-time African-American faculty member in the department of psychology and a former director of the Institute of Social Research, founded PRBA with a vision for training young scientists. He served as an advocate on behalf of his students, inspiring and guiding their progress and encouraging them to do the same with their own mentees. The model he created allows students to learn beyond the theoretical coursework in the classroom, working directly as part of a research project, with exposure to faculty members and senior graduate research students.

“I often look to my PRBA experience for models of leadership, collaborative management, integrity and commitment to social justice and societal betterment,” says Tucker, honored for Outstanding and Enduring Contributions in Research, Mentoring and Academic Service at PRBA’s 40th reunion in June. “I could not have asked or wished for a better training experience.”

PRBA encourages mentoring in informal and formal ways. On the formal side, every two years the organization hosts workshops for junior faculty members and graduate students and provides a subsidy to help with attendance. PRBA keeps close ties with its alumni through events such as the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research (MCUAAAR) annual summer training workshop.

Karen Lincoln, a former student who helped design the program format used today, attends the workshop every year she can. Now an associate professor and director of the University of Southern California’s Hartford Center of Excellence in Geriatric Social Work, Lincoln keeps the tradition with her own students, who also attend the workshops. “I’ve been able to take what I’ve learned and my experience and pass it on to the students I’ve trained, and they do the same thing,” she says. “So there’s an essential multiplicative exponential effect – I would call it the PRBA effect – that goes beyond that direct association.” Also, PRBA extends MCUUAAR grants each year to three or four junior faculty members, who receive individual and group mentoring. Each month, the fellows present their research to the mentoring group for feedback.

On campus, PRBA saw a need for a mentoring group for postdoctoral students because, unlike undergraduate, graduate and faculty groups, they get no orientation. To foster camaraderie, PRBA hosts a group of eight to 10 students regularly. Additionally, the PRBA reunion, held the past two summers, also helps the organization bring together students and alumni to foster collaboration and networking.

Informal mentoring happens at all levels throughout PRBA, from faculty members who meet regularly with student groups, to senior graduate students who help younger students write articles and learn how to publish papers. And as former students transition to leadership roles within PRBA, they help continue the mentoring cycle. Cleopatra Caldwell, PRBA’s co-associate director and a U-M professor of health behavior and health education, experienced that transition when she returned to PRBA as a research investigator and moved into a leadership role. She says she’s received guidance from peers on how to submit proposals and mentor others. “The mentoring experience within PRBA is a very important recipe for our students’ success,” Caldwell says. “For me personally, it created a wonderful foundation since I entered Michigan as a grad student and even now as I continue to be part of this community in an academic position.”

The spirit of help and collaboration within PRBA that Jackson sparked reminds former student Carl Hill of the African-American neighborhoods in which he and many fellow researchers grew up. Now a director of the National Institute on Aging Office of Special Populations, he says, “There’s a system of exchange, a desire to help each other out with a ride to the store or to borrow a loaf of bread or all kinds of things. I think PRBA has that same spirit, except that it’s bartering for help with statistical consultation or a kind word to keep your spirits up as you’re going through your doctoral program. It’s sharing a funding opportunity or all kinds of collaboration that you can receive as being a part of the network. Once you are a part of the network, you give and you receive.”

PRBA’s mentoring model never ends, and its scientists envision their intergenerational mentorship cycle continuing and expanding as students graduate and become mentors to their own students. “Within PRBA, we’ve created layers of mentorship and support,” says Robert Joseph Taylor, director of PRBA and a U-M professor of social work. “Our members help each other excel and advance. We applaud each other’s accomplishments and collaborate whenever possible. I think this commitment to moving forward together makes PRBA a very unique and rich research resource.”

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