For 13 years, Mary F. Fernández has advised college students studying science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. But when she hears from them, it’s usually about more than just picking classes or handling a course load.
Take the student she mentored this past academic year, a Ph.D. candidate in biological engineering from Ghana, studying at an American public university in the mid-Atlantic. Her family, whom she was hoping to support with her degree, thought she should be spending her time having children. Her husband, when he needed to take a job out of state, did not want them to live apart and asked her to go with him, a move that would have put her degree in jeopardy.
When the student (whose name and institution Ms. Fernández declined to reveal, citing privacy concerns) contacted her, she wanted to know how to work out the distance with her husband. Other times she needed some cross-cultural coaching: Her adviser at her university was sometimes late for appointments and hard to get hold of, but speaking up about it felt pushy and rude. Most of all, she wanted encouragement from Ms. Fernández, an executive at AT&T Labs Research, that her degree was worth all the struggle.
Most of those Ms. Fernández advises face more than the usual college-student quandaries. That’s because she is paired with them by MentorNet, a nonprofit organization that makes online connections between mentors at private companies, like AT&T, IBM, and 3M, and female and minority students in the STEM disciplines.
In the STEM fields, students who are not white males are usually atypical. MentorNet, for which Ms. Fernández recently became chair of the Board of Directors, tries to provide STEM students with advisers who can help them navigate a classroom or anticipate a workplace in which they may be the only female or foreign or minority employees. Ultimately, MentorNet hopes to keep them from dropping out of the field—a perennial problem for women and minorities in the STEM disciplines. Read more>>