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English Professor Herman Beavers, one of the few minority professors at Penn, says it is important to act as a mentor for minority students. (Will Burhop/The Daily Pennsylvanian)

In over two years at Penn, College junior Angel Del Villar has yet to have a Latino professor at Penn. He wishes things were otherwise, but the Latino English major says that he's simply grown accustomed to the lack of minority professors at Penn.

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"I wish there were more minority professors," Del Villar explained. "But I've always just tried to have myself deal with it." Del Villar isn't the only minority student at Penn forced to adjust to a predominately white environment. To try and handle this racial climate, more and more students are reaching out to minority professors through informal mentoring relationships. Students and professors alike say these ties help minority students feel comfortable in the traditionally white setting of academia. And both groups voiced the need for mentors, with many citing the importance of minority role models as crucial to an undergraduate's success. Minority students and faculty said that mentoring relationships are marked by a high comfort level on both ends. Typically, these bonds form through classes and range from the occasional drop-in at office hours to the weekly coffee date. Del Villar remembers talking to one African-American professor about his past and his background -- things he said he might not have discussed with another professor. "The fact that he's a minority professor, maybe sometimes there is a higher level of comfort," Del Villar said. College sophomore Chavon Sutton, who is African American, added that with minority professors, "It's just a matter of feeling like I don't have to be reserved initially." For Penn professors who actively mentor undergraduates at Penn, the relationship means helping students cope with racial issues in a number of ways. English Professor Herman Beavers remembered speaking with one student whose roommate heavily questioned him about how he got into Penn, insinuating that his race rather than his accomplishments won him a place at the University. "[The student was] devastated by the idea that anybody could think that they didn't get here because they worked hard," Beavers noted. Many times, Beavers said, he helps students adjust to the racial climate at Penn -- a place in which he said it can be hard for minorities to find their niche. "The culture at Penn is such that it has the effect of erasing students of color," Beavers said. But Sutton said her mentoring relationship wasn't directly about race. It helped her gain confidence in herself and her academic abilities -- even prompting her to turn away from the pre-medical track. "He helped me see I was smarter than that. That was powerful," she explained. "Deep inside, I felt that pre-med wasn't for me." For many faculty, mentoring a minority student means serving as a role model, encouraging many to pursue careers regardless of the lack of minorities in a particular field. Sociology Professor Tukufu Zuberi, the former director of the African Studies Center, noted that minority mentoring relationships are especially important with few minority professors at Penn. Physics Professor Larry Gladney, one of several minority professors at Penn who serves as a mentor, said he works with students who are intimidated by a lack of minorities in the sciences. "Students say that they never see black scientists, [and] it's isolating in thinking about career options," Gladney said. Gladney noted that he serves not only as a mentor but as a role model, encouraging students of color to pursue careers in certain disciplines -- namely the hard sciences. According to Beavers, if students go through their Penn careers without ever seeing a professor of their own race, they might feel turned away. "Students walk into a class and have never had a minority professor in front of the classroom," Beavers said, adding that without minority professors, students can began to believe there simply aren't minorities in the discipline. And students said that never seeing minority professors sets a discouraging example for them. "It can be hard as an African-American student to believe in yourself when you see so many people who don't look like you," Sutton explained. "If we don't see it, we don't believe it." Sutton added that these connections weren't intentional -- but informally happened given the few minority professors and role models at Penn. "I think it's natural," she said.
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