Faculty diversity liaisons help students thrive

Nov. 4, 2003

by Barbara Wolff

The world, or at least its musical portions, gained depth and new dimensions for freshman Ingrid Smith when she first heard vintage recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn.

""I Just Got Lost in His Arms,' "Body and Soul,' songs like that. I instantly connected with that music — I was just tripping on it!" Smith says.

She didn't just stumble across those recordings by accident. Richard Davis, world-renowned bassist and professor of music, introduced Smith to the recordings. She had enrolled in Davis' Black Music Ensemble class this fall, her first semester as a freshman at UW-Madison.

"He also told me about (trumpeter) Charlie Miller and Peace Horn and (saxophonist) Coleman Hawkins," Smith says. "And I'm so excited by it, I'm screaming about it to Richard in class and he's so cool about it."

Perhaps with good reason. Davis has known personally and often performed with many of the musicians he and Smith discuss: Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, John Coltrane, Van Morrison, Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Benny Goodman, the aforementioned Sarah Vaughn and others.

Although Smith doesn't know yet what her major will be, music clearly is her thing. She's a vocalist with Davis' Black Music Ensemble, which you will be able to hear in concert on Thursday, Nov. 20. She sings as often as she can at open mikes.

Consequently, Davis is her mentor, under the university's Faculty Diversity Liaison program administered by the College of Letters and Science. The 4-year-old program gives students of color faculty advocates, providing information about academic support, research and/or employment opportunities, financial aid and more through the mentor's home department.

"The purpose of the FDL program is to help students of color explore their academic interests and succeed in the university community," says Ronald L. Woolfolk, assistant dean of L&S's Pathways to Excellence, a cluster of academic enrichment programs for students that include the faculty liaison program.

"Richard and I get together about once a week. We talk about my getting into the School of Music, how I'm doing in school now, different music styles," says Smith, a veteran of the UW-Madison PEOPLE (Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence) program, an intensive college pipeline program for ethnic minority and low-income middle and high school students in selected Wisconsin cities.

At the core of the Pathways philosophy is the belief that excellence is achieved in ways as distinctive as each individual student. However, Davis says there are a few ground rules for mentoring that apply to just about every situation.

"The most important thing is to listen," he says. "You have to take the time, hang out, have a meal, give them direction and contacts, if that's what they need and want."

Not surprisingly, perhaps, an effective mentor will possess an almost uncanny ability to read between the lines, since, in many cases, students don't know exactly what they need, or how best to get it.

"A good fit between the mentor and the student is critical. Not every student needs or wants what I'm able to offer," says Ada Deer, director of the American Indian Studies Program and a distinguished lecturer in the School of Social Work. "My door is always open, and I try to be available to anyone — students, faculty, staff — who has a question or needs help."

For Deer, the key to being effective is honest give-and-take between mentor and student. "It can't be a one-way street," she says.

Deer has seen the mentoring process in action from both sides. As former assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the federal Department of the Interior from 1993-97, Deer has been in a prime position to offer insight and help to UW-Madison students. She also has had her own share of mentors, most recently, Common Cause founder John Gardner, secretary of health, education and welfare in the Johnson administration. However, he was not her only source of insight, inspiration and information.

"Over a lifetime you can have a number of different mentors who address different needs at different times," she says.

Deer also has seen UW-Madison from both sides. The first Menominee to graduate from the UW, in 1957, she understands well what it's like to be a student of color here.

That is an invaluable mentoring skill, according to Dara Pumphrey, recipient of a Chancellor's Scholarship and a sophomore majoring in zoology and psychology. This semester, Deer is Pumphrey's liaison. They get together from time to time and have lunch, Pumphrey says.

"I'm glad I'm getting to know Ada and other faculty members better. If I ran into tough times, I'd know where I could go," she says. "It's also good to be able to talk to her about little stuff like roommates and taking tests."

Faculty and staff interested in becoming faculty diversity liaisons are always welcome, says Woolfolk.

"FDLs not only make a difference, they are the difference between a rewarding educational experience and a mediocre one," he says. "To a significant degree, FDLs determine to a significant extent whether or not students of color stay at the university."

Woolfolk says that departmental committees appoint FDLs. "But for us in Pathways, getting someone to come forward and volunteer is a real plus," he says. For information about the faculty liaison program, contact Pathways to Excellence, 262-2583.