Feature

Decades before the term "mentoring" was in vogue, Joe White, PhD, was actively reaching out to students, forming bonds and helping them map career paths.

Even in retirement, as professor emeritus of the University of California, Irvine--where he taught from 1969 until 1994--White continues to find time to guide students toward professional careers in law, medicine and, particularly, psychology.

"He is a keen observer of people and thus has an uncanny ability to pull out the best in students of all backgrounds," says Gene Awakuni, EdD, a former mentee who is now vice president of student services at Columbia University in New York. "The number of students he has sent on to PhD programs is incredible."

To White, that dedication to the younger generation is an effort to provide for others what he never had for himself.

"I always remembered what a struggle it was for me, first to get a general goal and then to get connected to a pathway," White says, "And I said, there's a gap here somewhere. Young people with talent can't get connected because they don't know how."

White, one of the fathers of black psychology who was at the forefront of the civil rights battle, stumbled into his career without guidance from a single role model.

A happenstance introduction

White had never even heard of psychology when he finished high school in 1950. At that time, he wanted to be a waiter on the trains--one of the most prestigious and secure jobs for black men at the time.

But the Korean War ruined his table-waiting aspirations. His only hope of avoiding the draft was to enter college. Fees in the California state system were nominal and San Francisco State University was only eight blocks from where he lived, so he registered.

He became fascinated with psychology during a mandatory introductory class. Even then he wondered about a career in psychology, but he couldn't figure out a pathway for reaching that goal.

At that time of widespread de facto discrimination, White looked around and saw, "There were no black faculty at San Francisco State," he says. "There were no black psychologists in California. So it seemed like an impossibility. It seemed that there was a hidden agenda that blacks did not become psychologists."

By age 25, White had a master's degree in psychology, had done his two-year military obligation, had a wife and two children, and still really wanted to be a psychologist. But he had been turned down for the limited openings at the University of California at Berkeley. And no one advised him of the strategy of making numerous graduate school applications. So he grudgingly decided to settle for law school. He could believe becoming a lawyer was possible, he said, "Because I had seen black lawyers."

But he tried once more to connect to psychology: In order not to waste time on schools with unwritten rules against admitting blacks, he wrote every graduate school in the United States--except those in the Deep South--and described his circumstances, including the fact, "I was colored people, Negro, whatever we were back then." He asked the schools if they would be interested in his application. Some schools told him his academic scores did not seem superior and some said he should go through the regular application process. But the University of Colorado and Michigan State University expressed an interest.

White chose Michigan. And when he completed his PhD there, he became the first black psychologist he had ever seen. White estimates that he was the fourth or fifth black person in the United States to get a PhD in clinical psychology.

But even then connections didn't just fall into place. During an internship at a Veterans Administration hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., he noticed that the white interns received social invitations from higher-ups. But the black maids and janitors mentored White.

"They took me to dinner at their houses," he recalls. "They could not tell me about psychology or the department of medicine or psychiatry, because they weren't in there. But they knew who was who, who to look out for and who could do me some good."

Becoming the guru

Based on his struggle through his training with precious little counseling, White began guiding students through their education, starting with his first undergraduates as an assistant professor at California State University at Long Beach.

"Word kind of got out: If you want to go to graduate school, go see Joe White," he says. "He is able to offer direction that is really easy to take and understand what students are going through," says one mentee, Michael Connor, PhD, psychology professor at California State University at Long Beach.

Another of White's group, Thomas Parham, PhD, assistant vice chancelor at the University of California­Irvine, says, "He is very good in helping folk in ways that are important to them and not just important to Joe."

Henry Tomes, PhD, executive director of APA's Public Interest Directorate, who has known White for more than 30 years through the Association of Black Psychologists, says, "Joe's a great mentor because he's bright and confident, but especially because he is approachable and likable, a man with more than a little 'street' in his movements."

Over the years, White has taken a particular interest in seeing that black students join the professional ranks, particularly in psychology. He notes that in 1968 U.S. psychology graduate schools were turning out a total of three or four black PhDs a year.

But he has also mentored many white students and young people from other ethnic backgrounds.

And as the years went along, particularly during his 25 years at Irvine, White was viewed by students as the guru on the subject.

"I usually worked with them individually," he says, "and then they formed informal groups and might come to my office hours, or I'd hold an extra office hour."

Nita Tewari, now a doctoral student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., says, "He does not have just one way of mentoring every student. His psychology background allows him to tailor the mentoring....He was born to be this incredible teacher."

White even took students to conventions with him to show them the ropes.

"Everywhere I went there were always two or three of them with me," he recalls. "I think whatever effectiveness I've had comes from being able to connect with young people as a person."

With that link, White says, the students begin to trust you and believe that you think they have potential. After that they often open up and talk about their future and their dreams, he says.

Awakuni, who considers White to be one of the most brilliant people he's ever met, relates how White informed him he was going into higher education administration years before he had any such notions.

White has worked most often with students interested in psychology, law or medicine. Once a student decides on an area of interest, says White, he helps them establish a pathway--figuring out what schools might be receptive, how to get letters of recommendation, how to get the necessary preparation and how to get scholarships.

Freedom Train

Because Irvine itself doesn't have a clinical psychology graduate program, White and his colleagues established what they call a "Freedom Train"--connections with about eight graduate schools around the country that are receptive to Irvine students. They try to "block-enroll" two or three students at the same graduate school in any one year so that there's a contingent of Irvine students who will be available to look after new enrollees.

"We teach the older ones to look after the younger ones," he explains.

And after decades of weaving networks, White's reach goes further than graduate schools. He has people working in schools, in mental health centers or other programs or with connections to summer internships and other possibilities.

"So we call them up and they help us out," he says.

Although White has been retired for almost six years, the Freedom Train keeps moving and he continues to expand the network.

For example, during meetings of the Association of Black Psychologists, of which he is a founding member, he says, "I will sit down in the lobby with my notepad and make some time available for the young people who want to connect with me."

Advice on mentoring

Asked his views on mentoring today, White worries that it's become too formal a process, as schools assign students to mentors.

"We are extending the same kind of Euro-American philosophy that permeates the institutions," he says. "Mentoring involves a relationship that has to have some degree of spontaneity and informality."

However, mentors may need training, especially if they are going to work with ethnic minorities and women, says White. A great faculty member, he cautions, is not necessarily a good mentor.

He also worries that pressures of gaining tenure prevent young faculty from mentoring effectively. Universities, he says, give lip service to mentoring, but he is not sure how many take it into account when deciding tenure.

White advises academics to build mentoring into their contract because, despite the explosion of information available to students, mentoring is still vital, particularly for ethnic-minority students and women who are still often the first generation in their families to go to college or graduate school. "They haven't had a connection to people in academia," says White. "So it's important that they establish a connection with a strong, older figure who can then guide them through the process of getting started."