Allison Lewis and Joy Zhou, assistant professors of mathematics Twitter
In fall 2018, Lewis and Zhou both attended a lecture sponsored by the College’s Inclusive STEM initiative. Nilanjana Dasgupta of University of Massachusetts in Amherst spoke about the benefit of peer mentors—how they act as a “social vaccine” that helps young women feel a sense of belonging in predominantly male fields. Dasgutpa’s research shows that female undergrads paired with peer mentors who are female students feel more motivated and confident and less anxious compared to others.
Lewis and Zhou were so inspired by the talk, as they left Colton Chapel and walked across campus that evening, they immediately started kicking around ideas for how they could create a mentorship program to support math majors who identify as female or non-binary at Lafayette.
They pitched the idea to their math colleagues, who shared their enthusiasm. With the support of their department and additional assistance from the Offices of Alumni Relations and Development, Lewis and Zhou secured a grant from Mathematical Association of America to help fund the program.
The program’s mentorship works on two levels: Students are grouped in mentoring clusters with peers on campus; first-year and sophomores are matched with juniors and seniors so they can discuss issues that come up with classes as well as the general adjustment to college life. The second aspect is enabled via a partnership with alumni relations and Gateway Career Center. More than 40 alumni volunteered to mentor the 30 student participants by talking through career options and how to navigate STEM graduate programs and industries as a member of the minority group.
In addition to mentorship conversations, Lewis and Zhou also have scheduled ongoing talks, social gatherings, plus a year-end field trip, all in the spirit of fostering an atmosphere of support and inclusivity. “Even though the program was intended to help students, I feel it has also helped me personally as well, as I am benefiting from hearing the students and alumni share their experiences,” Zhou says. “It is really wonderful to see how people from this campus are so supportive: We got so much help from colleagues, various offices on campus, and the enthusiastic alumni.”