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By Alexis Short
Johnna Frierson is the current Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. Frierson, Ph.D., participated in the National Research Mentoring Network’s “Entering Mentoring” facilitator training and as a virtual mentor through the MyMentor online portal. She plans to complete the NRMN “Entering Research” facilitator training this year. Below is a Q&A with Frierson as she discusses her experiences with mentoring, diversity, higher education and what she has gained through working with the NRMN.
What is your favorite aspect of your current position?
As the Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, I work to develop and support recruitment, retention, and community-building initiatives for students, faculty, and staff in the Pratt community. I enjoy the variety of my job, the partnerships I’ve built with the faculty and administrators. My favorite aspect is supporting the students in their academic and professional journeys.
What makes you an ideal mentor?
I’m always growing as a mentor, and I strive to be a “compassionate realist”. To me this means first being able to understand and sympathize with someone’s perspective before inserting my own point of view or advice. It also means being honest with my mentees to help them recognize their strengths as well as their weaknesses or opportunities for growth. I think this helps establish a relationship built on trust which is really important to me.
How did you get involved with NRMN?
I became aware of NRMN during my postdoctoral fellowship in Fall 2012 while attending the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students for graduate student recruitment. About two years ago, as I was developing a new mentoring program for undergraduate engineering students at Duke University, a colleague encouraged me to take advantage of the resources NRMN has to offer and apply to attend a facilitator training workshop. So, in Spring 2017, I attended a workshop and thoroughly enjoyed it. I left feeling better equipped to support the students I work with using effective mentoring strategies and develop impactful mentoring programs.
Describe your role in the Facilitator Training and tell us a little about your experience in that role.
I completed the train-the-trainer workshop for the “Entering Mentoring” curriculum. I found the experience to be informative, engaging, and very beneficial to me in my current role as I work to develop initiatives to support students from underrepresented backgrounds in engineering. During the two-day training I not only received hands-on practice and guidance with implementing the curriculum, but I also had the opportunity to expand my network and connect with other like-minded faculty and administrators from other institutions who are also passionate about mentoring.
Have you participated in other similar programs in the past? If so, how was your experience with NRMN different or unique?
Before training with NRMN I had not been through a program focused on the practice of mentoring. As a scientist, I appreciated the specificity and relevance of the content and case studies to the STEM disciplines, and the evidence-based development of core competencies as the foundation for effective mentoring.
If someone called you and asked, “Why should I become involved with NRMN?” how would you respond?
I would say you should become involved with NRMN because of the wealth of information, training, and networking opportunities offered regardless of whether you are early in your career and experience as a mentor or a seasoned veteran. Just as we consistently work to stay abreast of the latest research in our scientific disciplines and strive for excellence as scholars, I believe we owe it to our students to strive for excellence in mentoring and provide the best guidance possible. Taking the time to go through training or become more well acquainted with what the organization has developed is well-worth the investment in yourself and the positive impact it can have for our colleagues and students.
How has your experience with NRMN changed the way you approach your career in the sciences?
The training I’ve received through NRMN has definitely enhanced my ability to be an effective mentor to the students I serve. I am much more aware of the ways in which I can provide support and helpful mentoring, be it working through a specific challenge or thinking holistically about the mentor/mentee relationship and how I can maintain or improve it as it develops. The NRMN training gave me a framework to continually refer back to as I determine how I can be most helpful with each mentee.
Describe a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career.
One of the most significant accomplishments in my career thus far is serving as the founding Director of Diversity and Inclusion in Engineering for the past three years. Establishing this new role has been a rewarding challenge which, through hard work and invaluable partnerships, has allowed me to connect talented underrepresented students with opportunities for research and graduate studies, make forward strides in diversifying our faculty, and provided a platform to speak about issues at the intersection of STEM, society, and equity which I’m very passionate about.
Each morning, what do you look most forward to in the day?
I look forward to greeting my family each morning and receiving big morning hugs and kisses from my little ones, my son (age 2), and daughter (age 5). I also look forward to going to work each day to tackle challenging issues and the gratification I feel when I start to see incremental change in the right direction.
Anything else that you would like to share?
I want to express my gratitude to all those who have served as mentors to me along the way, and I would like to give special recognition to my Ph.D. advisor and mentor, Dr. Terence Dermody, for setting a great example during my time as a graduate student and continuing to support and guide me today.
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.