Shireen Lewis was working on her dissertation for her doctorate and feeling very isolated and alone. She recalls thinking, “There must be other women of color going through the same thing I am.”
Lewis put out a call and four women showed up at the first gathering of a support group for women working on their Ph.ds. That was in 1997 in Washington, D.C. and since that time Lewis’s group, called SisterMentors, has helped 41 women receive their doctorate degrees.
Then in 2000, the women wanted a way to “reach back” and they began mentoring young girls by introducing them to the idea of attending college, counseling them on how to prepare for it and being a support to them through their years of higher education. To date they have helped 19 girls of color go to college and have mentored about 100 girls total. There are 30 girls in the program now. Most are from low-income families and most will be first-generation college graduates.
At that very first meeting of SisterMentors, Lewis greeted a group of frustrated women who said they had tried to form groups before and they had failed because people talked about everything except their dissertations.
“They wanted rules about how often we met, what we would talk about. They wanted to be accountable and wanted goals,” Lewis said.
Today, nearly 15 years later, SisterMentors meets once every four weeks. Members still write down their individual goals every six months. Of course, as they journey through the doctoral process, earn their degrees and move on, those goals change.
Over the years Lewis learned that one of the main reasons people drop out of the long process to earn a PhD (generally seven to 10 years) is lack of mentoring by the people on the candidate’s advisory committee or from the advisor. Also, Lewis said, families are often not supportive because they don’t understand the process and can’t understand why it takes so long to get a degree.
Treda Grayson, a doctoral student in Environmental Science and Public Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., joined SisterMentors in the fall of 2009. She delivered her oral proposal defense before her committee that following January. She thought everything was going well, she said, until June, “when my committee kind of turned on me.”
A member told her there had been “some political infighting” that had nothing to do with her but the result was that the committee was changing her program from a Ph.D. to a M.S.
Said Grayson, “I was basically told, ‘You already have a career. You don’t need a Ph.D.”
Grayson works for the Environmental Protection Agency, leading a program that assesses the condition of the nation’s coastal waters. Still, she believes if she left the federal government to go into the private sector she would need her doctorate.
“I have never quit anything, but I think I would have stopped if it were not for SisterMentors” said Grayson. “It made all the difference to have that encouragement.”
She switched schools, is in her second semester at George Mason and is back on course toward earning her doctorate.
Tisha Lewis (no relationship to Shireen) had a different, yet similar experience. Today she is an assistant professor on a tenure track at Georgia State University in Atlanta in the College of Education. She was living in New Jersey when she heard about the support group.
“I was in the middle of my comprehensive examination and I had a meeting with my advisor. I thought we would talk about my progress. “But he said, ‘We had a meeting—meaning, the faculty—and we’ve decided you should no longer be in the program. We don’t think your writing is up to par. We think it will take you too much time to complete the degree and we can’t support you.’”
Lewis said she had never received a warning. “It was the most devastating and humiliating and embarrassing time of my life,” she said. “This university had welcomed me with a four-year fellowship.”
She moved back to DC to live with her parents but she fought back, going to complain to the dean and continuing to work on her doctorate in spite of the committee’s recommendation. “I had faculty of color there who said, ‘You are not giving up.’
She jokingly said she “stalked Dr. Lewis” after hearing of SisterMentors and that she would not have completed her doctorate without the group’s support.
"They held me accountable,” she said. “I had to learn how to work smarter. I had to set realistic goals and have a vision on where I would go with those goals.” They read her work for her and “provided constructive feedback” and they complimented her as her writing skills developed.
“Another part of SisterMentors that was just golden was attending writing retreats,” Noted Lewis, who said she accomplished so much each time she attended.
Now she finds great joy in mentoring the younger girls. Even while she was going through her own frustrations, she said, “Working with the girls got me to take the focus off myself.”
This year Lewis received the 2012 Promising Researcher Award from the 101-year-old National Council of Teachers of English for her work and writings about how African-American families are utilizing digital literacy practices in their lives.
The next generation of sister doctors, the young mentees, arrive now as young as nine years old and stay with the group through college. The mentors also meet with the young girls once a month.
The girls attend workshops and on spring break go to visit a college campus, “so we can demystify college,” said SisterMentors Founder, Lewis. The mentees set academic and personal goals at the beginning of the school year. The sister mentors check report cards and ask questions to help solve potential problems.
Cindy Ayala, a junior at George Mason majoring in New Media Art with a minor in game design, came to SisterMentors when she was 12 years old. She has since recruited a younger sister and some younger cousins.
“When I first joined I was very shy. I would never talk,” said Ayala. “What helped me was we did a huge fundraiser for the 10th anniversary. They asked me and my friend to help host the event. I was 15 and terrified. But once I got started it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It helped that people came up and said, ‘You did such a great job.’
SisterMentors also helped to prepare her for the ACT and SAT and offering for free an expensive SAT prep class that counselors recommended, said Ayala, a first generation college grad.
“Dr. Lewis made it clear I should be more serious with my studies,” recalled Ayala, who wants to become an animator and have her own company. With the encouragement of her older sisters, she raised her grades. Last semester she made the Dean’s List and she plans to study abroad next year.
SisterMentors will soon celebrate its 15th anniversary.
“I had no idea this thing would even exist today,” said Lewis. “I had no idea women would keep coming.”
Tisha Lewis believes she knows why the women keep coming.
“We are able to get together in one space and have this community and there is no jealously; no fighting. In SisterMentors, there is true concern and love for one another.”