BUILD PODER: The Power of Femtorship

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By Hansook Oh

There are more women in higher education today than ever before. From undergraduate, graduate and faculty levels, women have more opportunities to participate in academia and impact the culture of university environments. One of those cultural contributions is the positive relationship building that comes from female mentorship, or “femtorship.”

Women make up a majority of the leaders of the BUILD PODER program at California State University, Northridge. Two of BUILD PODER's principal investigators, Carrie Saetermoe, Ph.D., and Gabriela Chavira, Ph.D., direct the research enrichment and student training programs. The two have a relationship of over 20 years as mentor and mentee, and now as colleagues running the largest grant-funded program at the university. 

Both women serve in large-scale mentor roles for the program. As the research enrichment core director, Saetermoe helps BUILD PODER's faculty mentors progress in the "holistic" mentoring style that she has developed from her own experiences with mentoring. 

"My mentors were great mentors in some ways but failed me in other ways, and what that made me want to do is become a holistic mentor," Saetermoe said. "I don’t think the ways we think about mentoring now are the ways people thought about mentoring even 20 years ago. Holistic mentoring is not just about your research, not just about your classes or just about your future. It means seeing people in their life trajectory – who you are before you got here, who you are now and who you can become. To me, mentoring has to be holistic because, yes, certainly students can take things from different places, but if you’re the central mentor, you’re kind of like the “primary care provider” to them. You are the one who coordinates different things with that person."

Recently, the program has expanded to include four new faculty as part of BUILD PODER’s health equity cluster, one of whom is Chavira’s former mentee, Yolanda Vasquez-Salgado, Ph.D. Together these women represent three generations of shared wisdom, experiences, and positive impact, and their stories of personal and professional achievement speak to the transformational power of femtorship.

"Our mentoring relationships as women also reflect our social justice perspective," Saetermoe said. "How do you combat generations of inequality and structural racism? You do it by doing the opposite of what that oppression is. You consciously build different generations. And we do that through mentoring."

Read more below to learn about Saetermoe, Chavira and Vasquez-Salgado’s first impressions of each other, what they have gained from working together and their hopes for the future.


MENTOR PERSPECTIVE: Carrie Saetermoe, Ph.D., mentor to Gabriela Chavira, Ph.D.

What was your first impression of your mentee, Gabriela Chavira? I first met Gabriela when she was a master’s student and I hired her to join my lab. Even back then there was something different about her. When she made a commitment, she was there with no question, and she would finish her projects. If we had to do an interview, she would make sure it was done well, she would do the transcription – she was the follow-through gal.

What have you learned from mentoring Gabriela Chavira? I’ve learned that if you share your passion with someone who also holds that passion in their heart, what happens is that it becomes greater than the sum of two passionate people. If you’re authentically passionate and you join other passionate people, that’s when great things happen, like BUILD PODER. Also, when I think about Gabriela and how she knows an individual student's circumstances, I think wow, that’s one of her strengths, she sees each of them as an individual. It’s stunning to me. I’ve also learned a lot about mentoring just from watching her be a mentor.

What is your favorite thing about having Gabriela Chavira as a mentee? It’s really fun watching how she’s changed and also watching how she’s stayed the same. That thing I saw in her before, that willingness to throw her whole body and soul to whatever it is that she is doing – I still see that quality. The best thing about mentoring her is to see how she’s grown with every challenge and that she overcomes challenges pretty easily. If there is a barrier, she says let’s fix it and move on. It’s been a lot of fun to watch her grow. She’s refined mentoring to an art.

What personal strengths has working with Gabriela Chavira brought out in you? Working with her in BUILD, I have become more in touch with the critical side of where I want to go with my own career. BUILD is from a critical perspective, not business as usual. When we decided to write this grant, we looked at each other and said the only way we are going to write it is if it really comes from the heart, and what we believe. It's been an incredible journey.


MENTEE PERSPECTIVE: Gabriela Chavira, Ph.D., mentored by Carrie Saetermoe, Ph.D.

What was your first impression of Carrie Saetermoe? When I was a grad student I enrolled in her graduate seminar in developmental psychology. She was very dynamic and in the class she was so passionate and animated. She talked about the theories in a way that made me want to learn more.

She really created a nice community in her lab where students can get to know each other, it was our space because there weren’t many spaces on campus. It was like a counter-space in academia, because for people like myself, who are first-generation, immigrant, Latina, you often feel like you don't belong, but felt like I belonged in her lab. Everybody in her lab hung out there even when we weren’t doing research, we were just there just to have this community. She provided a safe space for us on campus.

What have you learned from Carrie Saetermoe? Carrie is still my mentor. She was a mentor in 1996 and still has been mentoring me over 20 years. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. And I think a good mentor does that. When the imposter syndrome starts to creep in and makes you think, ‘maybe this isn’t for me’ or that I don’t have what it takes – she was there to say no, you are amazing, look at all that you have done. Many, many times she put those imposterisms at bay for me, and made me see myself in a way that I don’t always see myself.  And I do the same thing for my students when I see them doubting themselves.

What is your favorite thing about having her as a mentor? We have developed a great friendship. It started off as a hierarchical relationship because she was the one with the knowledge and I was the learner. But over time I started to see myself as a colleague and equal. She still teaches me and mentors me, when I have my doubts she reminds me I have lot to contribute. I value that friendship we developed. The fact that now we are PIs on a grant, sometimes it’s surreal to think about that. She provided me this opportunity. She challenges me sometimes in the same way I challenge her, and now I do the same thing for her and tell her that she is amazing and encourage her. I like the fact that I can give back and support her in return.

What personal strengths has working with Carrie brought out in you? I think what I’ve gained from our relationship is the notion that the work that we do is valuable and it matters. She reminds me that the work that I do can make huge contributions to students’ lives. She’s taught me to fight to have a voice in academia and at the university.


MENTEE PERSPECTIVE: Yolanda Vasquez-Salgado, Ph.D., mentored by Gabriela Chavira, Ph.D.

What was your first impression of your mentor, Gabriela Chavira? I met her as an undergraduate when I enrolled in her introduction to developmental psychology course. I was really intimidated! She walked into the room, went over the syllabus and she had the book with her, and she told the class, ‘this is our book, and you will read it.’ When she said that, I knew she was going to be tough, but I quickly began to like her. I was the type of student who always went to office hours if I didn’t understand something or wanted to discuss something further. On one occasion, she asked me if I had ever thought of getting a Ph.D. I was so shocked because I had never thought of myself as the type of person who would [pursue a Ph.D.]. That day, I called my entire family and said to them, ‘can you believe this professor, she thinks I can get my Ph.D.’ That day really motivated me as I set a goal to earn my Ph.D. and everything I did started to align with that goal. Gabriela “found” me, inspired me and I joined her research lab.

What have you learned from your mentor, Gabriela Chavira? She gave me my foundation for research. She was the first person to teach me how to code a variable. I remember the exact day, because of the look she gave me. She had trained me and told me okay, this is what we are going to do, you’re going to code this variable, and I’m going to code it and we will check our codes together. So she was going to leave the lab and then she looked back at me and asked me what I was doing, and I told her that I was going to code the variable right then, and she gave me this look – maybe she was impressed or proud. And I remember that moment, and those minor things can make a difference. She also taught me that you can have a balance in life because she was such an involved parent and she has done amazing things. And that’s what I hope to be one day.

I didn’t realize it then, but the things we researched in her lab is what got me connected to research. She was studying Latino adolescents in high school, and as a Latina I had just experienced high school. And that created a match between my background and academia. Before I met her I didn’t know about disparities, I didn’t know that certain groups had higher dropout rates. That sparked an interest in me because Latinos were facing high disparities. I study ‘cultural mismatch,’ and she helped me to match with that topic a long time ago. And if it wasn’t for that, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am today. And I still feel she is my mentor today, especially being on the tenure track, she’s gone through it and she’s been at CSUN for some time, and she always gives me tips.

What is your favorite thing about having Gabriela Chavira as a mentor? Gabriela has always been understanding. I think a part of it is because she and I share a similar background. I had a child in my master’s program and she understood what it was like to be a mother. She’s somebody who has a lot of experience working with students from diverse backgrounds and I feel because of that, she is always so understanding.

What personal strengths has she helped bring out in you?  Mentoring others is something she brought out in me. When I was in her lab, she started having us mentor newer students. I was trained by her and then I, in turn, would train new mentees. There was this tiered mentoring we would do and this enabled me to practice those skills, and I began to like mentoring. Gabriela also told us she was on a mission to increase the pipeline of underrepresented students in higher education and academia, and now I feel like I’m on the same mission. And it’s not just me, there are all of these students she has mentored over the years who are on the same mission. This mission we are all on really motivates me. She’s given me the know-how on how to be an involved mentor and given me a lot of passion.

What mentoring qualities/style have you learned from her that you have adopted as a mentor? I always encourage and believe in my mentees. Even now, Gabriela does that for me. If I question whether or not I can do something she says, ‘you can do it, I believe in you.’ And I know it can sound so minor for somebody to tell you that they believe in you but it really does make a big difference. Believing in students is very powerful, especially when it’s your mentor [who] is telling you that they believe in you and telling you the reasons why. That’s something that I continue to do that I directly learned from Gabriela.


MENTOR PERSPECTIVE: Gabriela Chavira, Ph.D., mentor to Yolanda Vasquez-Salgado, Ph.D.

What was you first impression of Yolanda Vasquez-Salgado? Yolanda was in my introductory development psychology class. She sat right in front so it was hard to miss her. She always came ready to participate in discussion and she always had her hand raised. So I singled her out and asked her what she wanted to do, but she didn’t really know. And I told her to join my research lab and that she had what it takes to get into a research program – and that was it. She asked questions, she had that thirst and motivation that I look for. She was ready – she just didn’t know it.

What have you learned from mentoring Yolanda? I have learned a lot being her mentor because not only was she thirsty in the class for more knowledge, but in the lab she always wanted more. So she challenged me to want to be a better mentor for her and she was always one step ahead and always came in with ideas about what conferences we could present at. She took the initiative, she always had that drive and I always felt like all I had to do was help guide her, she just needed a little assistance getting to where she needs to go. She’s the driver and I was there to help facilitate her path.

What is your favorite thing about mentoring Yolanda? She challenges me to be a better mentor, to be stronger and to have more resources, and to seek out more for my students.

What are you looking forward to in your mentoring relationship? It’s beautiful that now we are colleagues working together and co-authoring papers together. Now that she is a first-year in her path as a professor, she has a lot of questions and she still comes to me for advice, which I really appreciate because it shows she trusts me. I’m looking forward to the day when we are on equal plains where we can be true friends.


The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.