More than Just a Number: the Richard Rubin Scholar Mentoring Program

When Barbara Pham '18 first arrived at Swarthmore College, she realized she had a lot to learn, from interacting with professors to signing off on her emails to them. "Being at Swarthmore is like being in a radically different context. I was expected to just approach professors and talk to them," she said.

Pham, now a senior, exudes confidence and knowledge. Having grown up in a Vietnamese immigrant household in Westminster, CA, Pham went to Marina High School in Huntington Beach, CA before attending Swarthmore. She is a low-income student who is first in her family at college. For her, this identity feels like the exception, instead of the rule, on Swarthmore's wealthy campus.

Something that helped her through her challenges is the Richard Rubin Scholar Mentoring Program. The program connects freshmen and sophomores from underrepresented backgrounds (e.g. low-income, first generation, or people of color) with faculty or staff mentors, as well as internship and research opportunities. Students in the program are able to develop relationships with their faculty or staff mentors, as well as those in their workplaces or research centers, until graduation or even beyond.

Dean Karen Henry '87, Dean of First Year Students and Director of First Generation and Low Income Student Initiatives, is currently in charge of the program. "I've been involved almost from the very beginning of the Program," she said. "I work to recruit students for the Program, support their match with their mentor, and help them find various resources on campus and through the Program."

The program has been running since 2004, when four students of Richard Rubin, former Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, came together to start the program. They wanted future generations of Swatties to benefit from a mentorship like the one they had with Rubin. With their initial donations and Rubin's financial support, the program took off, offering funding for students to pursue summer opportunities.

There are now more than two hundred Rubin scholars from all four class years, a heartening increase from the five to ten scholars in the pioneering batch. According to Henry, the number of new faculty or staff mentors also grows every year. From biology to woodworking, Rubin scholars participate in a wide range of activities, reflecting the large variety of occasionally quirky interests that Swatties have.

September Porras '20, a Rubin scholar since freshman spring, is considering history-related research or museum work for her sophomore summer. She has faith that her mentor, Professor of History Diego Armus, would support her search process. "I know that Diego has connections in different places, and he seemed receptive about putting me in touch with different people," she said.

To bring students and their mentors together, Henry organizes two annual receptions. The fall reception includes a panel and poster presentation for scholars to showcase their summer internships or projects. In spring, another reception is held for the new cohort of scholars, including a training session about developing relationships with mentors. Henry and Swarthmore's Career Services also host a luncheon to inform eligible scholars about internship applications and funding.

"The most powerful thing was to stand in the room and realize how many people were first generation or low-income college students," Pham recounted how she felt at the receptions. "Swarthmore is a very wealthy campus because almost half of the students here [44%] don't use financial aid. Even if you're using aid, it doesn't necessarily mean you're low-income or first generation, because there are a lot of middle class students here. It can be stifling to feel that nobody really understands what it's like, but seeing professors and staff who really care creates a feeling of community."

Professor of Biology Elizabeth Vallen, a mentor to two scholars this year, agrees that forging a strong community is crucial for the Rubin Scholar Program to flourish. "No one mentor can be everything for a particular student, so I see this as us needing to make a web of support for students. Some mentors are good at kicking the tush, some are good for making professional connections, and some are shoulders to cry on," she said.

Vallen, who graduated from Case Western Reserve University, is herself a first generation college student. "There were many things about navigating college that were mysterious to me," she recalled. With her own experiences, Vallen hopes to help students who may require more guidance in adjusting to college and professional life.

To become a Rubin scholar, students are either nominated by faculty or staff or self-nominated by approaching faculty or staff. "I nominate students who may be shy in asking for help on their own, but who can benefit from it," Vallen said. "I personally think it would be good if more students self-nominated."

Generous alumni and individual donors, including Rubin, continue contributing to the funds that support the scholars' summer pursuits. Pham received full funding in her sophomore summer to do research at the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice in the University of California, Berkeley.

"The money used to fund my summer research was invaluable. I learnt how to do research, work with a professor, write tons and tons of literature reviews, and how to build professional relationships. It made me much more confident in research skills and want to apply to grad school," Pham said.

Henry hopes that as the program grows, it will receive more funding for scholars to put themselves out in the real world and broaden their horizons even more. "It'll be great if we had more money to offer students for not only internships, but also other kinds of experiences outside of the classroom," she said. "We could have smaller grants for students' educational experiences, such as volunteering."

When asked if she might want to become professional mentor to future generations of Rubin scholars, Porras' reply was enthusiastic. "I totally would!" she exclaimed. "I'll probably end up getting a PhD and teaching, but I would love to be a mentor. I know what I want out of this Program, such as internships, relationships, and networking. For me to have this knowledge and walked these shoes means that it would be great to provide an opportunity for someone else."