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Supporting Women of Color in Doctoral Programs: A Conversation with Dr. Shireen Lewis, Founder and Director of SisterMentors

13 May Posted by in Uncategorized | Comments

“This program has been invaluable in my dissertation writing and defense process,” Reston N. Bell, Ph.D. 2014. George Mason University.

We often hear Mason described as “one of the most diverse campuses in the nation.” During the past year, “diversity” and “accessibility” have been underscored in the both the Mason “IDEA” and the university’s Strategic Plan as qualities that define this institution.

But for women of color, doctoral study can still be a lonely world, even at an institution that prides itself on diversity, accessibility, and inclusiveness.

All doctoral students know that once you have finished your coursework, the Ph.D. can be a solitary – and isolating – pursuit. Without the support of a community of fellow students, mentors, and family, it can be hard to find the determination to see the dissertation through to the end. This is all the more true for women of color, who are a small minority among doctoral students in the United States. Women of color are more likely to face significant obstacles including family and economic pressure to put aside their doctoral study, and despite all good intentions, mentors and fellow students may not understand the special challenges they face.

Dr. Shireen Lewis created SisterMentors to help doctoral students in the Washington D.C. area who are women of color find the support they need to complete their doctorates. I became acquainted with Dr. Lewis through my work as Director of Graduate Fellowships at Mason, where I have encountered students and colleagues whose lives were changed by SisterMentors. I recently spoke with Dr. Lewis to learn more about this program, and about how women doctoral students of color at Mason can participate.

What is SisterMentors?

SisterMentors is a nonprofit program that promotes education among women and girls of color by offering support and mentorship to women of color doctoral students as they work to complete their doctorates. SisterMentors has had remarkable success in the last 16 years helping 47 women of color to earn doctorates in a wide range of fields across the Humanities, Social Sciences, Math, Science and Economics.

Doctoral students who join SisterMentors give back by working to inspire young girls of color from low-income families to stay in school, do well, and go to college. Thus far the program has also helped 23 young women to go to college – including at George Mason University, Duke University, and Goucher College.

Who can join SisterMentors? Is there a fee to join?

Participation in SisterMentors is FREE.

We welcome women doctoral students of color who have completed all coursework for the doctorate. Students do not necessarily have to be “advanced” or “ABD”; they may not yet have started their dissertation and could be working on other requirements for the doctorate, such as field statements, qualifying papers, portfolios, or the dissertation proposal. Or they may be in the research or writing phase of the dissertation.

The women and girls we support are African Americans, Latinas, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants of color. We desire to reach women of color from a wide variety of backgrounds and heritages.

What do participants in SisterMentors do? What is expected of them, and what can they expect?

The program includes writing retreats and monthly meetings for the women where the focus is on setting goals and accountability and where women read each other’s work and give feedback. Women also get together outside of meetings to sit together and write.

While in the program, SisterMentors doctoral students give back by mentoring young girls of color in public schools in the Washington, D.C area. Activities include monthly mentoring sessions, college visits and workshops for the girls.

Doctoral students who join SisterMentors are required to show up physically to attend our meetings and mentoring activities with the girls. We have found that the women care deeply and are committed to the girls’ academic and personal success.

Why is there a need for an organization like SisterMentors?

SisterMentors exists because the statistics show a high dropout rate — especially after completing course work — among all doctoral students, and especially women of color. Statistics also show a very low number of women of color with doctorates. One of our goals is to increase the number of women of color who earn doctorates.

SisterMentors has received much recognition, including an Honorary Degree to me from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and a Youth Community Service Award from the Alexandria Commission for Women.

How can interested Mason students learn more… or sign up?

Contact Kathryn E. Ágoston, Ph.D., Director of Graduate Fellowships at or 703-993-3131. Or Shireen K. Lewis, Ph.D., at or 202-778-6424. You may also visit the SisterMentors web site at and the Facebook page at

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