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Commencement Marshal Richard Reddick: The Role of Mentors

Although eight months have passed since Richard Reddick, Ed.M.'98, Ed.D.'08, handed in his dissertation and left Appian Way for a position as assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, he still feels as though his days at HGSE aren't over.

"I thought there would be a parade down Appian Way, but when I turned in my dissertation nothing changed," he says candidly. "It hasn't sunk in but I feel like when I arrive in Cambridge [for Commencement] then I will feel, 'Wow, it happened.' There's this desire to have some closing event especially for doctoral students because it is such a long time and investment."

Despite Reddick's moving on from the Ed School almost a year ago, he has been anything but forgotten on campus. But then again, Reddick is hard to forget considering that while at HGSE, he wrote two books with Professor Charles Willie, Legacies of Brown: Multiracial Equity in American Education and The Black College Mystique, and also appeared -- and won -- on game shows like Jeopardy and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Recently, he was named lead marshal for the 2008 commencement ceremony. This recognition, Reddick says, is a great honor. "It came as even more of a surprise because I've been gone for a while, but attests to the enduring relationships we have [with our classmates]," he says.

But perhaps what will stay most in his HGSE colleagues' minds is Reddick's dissertation and research on the role of mentors in education. The topic is one close to his heart. As an undergrad at UT-Austin, Reddick credits his success to excellent mentors. When Reddick began reading more about mentors in education, he discovered that most students don't get to the graduate school level without someone pushing them. "It's a growing issue in the pipeline particularly for people of color in education .... We are losing people along the way," he says. "I think the people who help you as an undergrad help you see that a life and career is out there for you to pursue. They are the unsung heroes, but I was surprised to find out there was little information about faculty who had inspired or encouraged students."

To find out more, Reddick set out to research the unique and intricate relationships between faculty members and minority students at Harvard College. The dissertation examined the perspectives of African American and white faculty mentors of African-American undergraduate students through a comparative analysis of the factors that influence the faculty members' mentorship of students, the role of formative experiences in faculty's philosophy and approach to mentorship around issues of race, and the advising and counseling strategies employed by faculty when assisting African American undergraduate students negotiate their perceived experiences of racial conflict.

After surveying between 50 and 60 students about the relationships, Reddick studied 12 faculty mentors. The results revealed that many factors such as family life, experiences, exposure to diversity, and professional identity issues are inconsequential in faculty mentors' approaches to mentoring African  American undergraduate students. For instance, Reddick found that, although certain African American faculty members equate their mentoring to being part of a "community movement," white faculty members were able to relate and empathize with African American undergraduates as well.

Reddick's research contradicts the general idea that African American faculty are often the best mentors for African American students. "There's evidence to suggest that the 'cultural taxation' that African American faculty often face can be alleviated because white faculty have found ways to successfully connect to and assist African American undergraduate students," he says. "White faculty can be effective in this role as well, especially if they have had the experience of living as 'the other' or have close relationships with friends and life partners who have."

Today Reddick is in the position of being a mentor himself as a professor at UT-Austin -- something that he finds challenging and ironic. "Less than a year ago, I was writing about it and now I'm doing it," he says, admitting the difficulty in trying to identify which students need his attention most. "It's funny to have researched something and have this academic experience because now I think, 'Wow, it's happening to me.'"