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Mentoring with authenticity

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Paula Welander
(Photo credit: Steve Castillo)

Paula Welander

Associate Professor
Earth System Science

October 13, 2020

During her upbringing in Los Angeles, Paula Welander’s family put a big emphasis on the value of education. They told her that to succeed in this country, she would need to get a college degree and have a career. They meant something like a lawyer or a doctor, Welander said, but she ended up becoming a professor who studies microbiology – a career neither she nor her family knew was an option until a mentor pointed her in the direction of graduate school.

“Over time, I started to notice these structural barriers that a lot of first-generation students experience,” said Welander, a professor of Earth System Science (ESS). “Just the fact that I didn’t have parents who had gone through the college process is a barrier – I had to do everything myself.”

Since 2018, Welander has served in an additional role as the Earth System Science Associate Chair of Diversity and Inclusion (ACDI) through Stanford Earth’s office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. The position has helped her provide an example of success for students of underrepresented backgrounds beyond just the students she advises – and that she considers just as important. “I am here and I am the daughter of Mexican immigrants. I was a mom in grad school. I am trying to balance my marriage with my husband with being a scientist with being a parent with being an advisor. You can’t leave your identity at the door to do science, so I don’t ask anyone to.”

Welander finds advising and teaching to be among the most rewarding aspects of her work, but those responsibilities haven’t always come easily. She describes teaching as the hardest part of professorship because, for her, research was the main focus of graduate school. “You’re focused on science and once you get the faculty position, you have to design courses and advise students. It’s like if you’re training to be a swimmer, and then on the day you get your faculty position, they hand you the keys to a boat.”

That said, she attributes some of her success to skills acquired beyond the classroom walls: her lived experience. “I come from a vastly different background than a lot of academic mentors come from. My experiences are different and I think that shows students that you can take different paths, and have different ideas, and different ways of doing things, and you can still be successful,” Welander said. “It gives me the confidence to question things and push boundaries, which is an essential characteristic for scientists.”