This essay focuses on the author's experience developing a student assistant program, which provides mentorship opportunities for BIPOC in the Special Collections and Archives at California State University, Los Angeles.
My personal experience in the profession and the growing interest of students at California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) has given me an opportunity to provide mentorship and guidance to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) students that are interested in learning more about the profession. Mentorship is an important aspect of any professional archivist's career and is critical in the developmental and sustainability of BIPOC in the archival profession. Mentors provide advice, moral support, and motivation to contribute to the overall growth of the mentee. The average Cal State LA student is working-class, non-traditional, first-generation, and non-white. In 2013 when I first started as the University Library Archivist at Cal State LA I began actively holding instruction sessions, research consultations, and curating exhibitions that highlighted our diverse collections. In 2015, I requested a significantly larger student assistant budget to help process collections, assist researchers, and digitization projects. The budget was approved by Library Administration, expanding the number of student assistants from two to six. I observed student interest and engagement during the training and onboarding process, which inspired me to formally establish the Special Collections and Archives Student Assistant Program. The program exposes students to the archival field and provides hands-on training in processing, digitization, reference, instruction, programming/outreach, and curation.
I work closely with each student assistant to develop projects that align with their academic goals and personal interests. Some of the projects include, “The 20/20 Experience: Impact of COVID-19 on the Cal State LA Campus Community,” a student-curated virtual exhibition featuring the Pandemic Diaries Project. The project aims to create an archive of digital diaries that capture the narratives and life experiences of our campus community during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fall 2020, four student assistants, Bryce Van Ross, Jocelyn Acosta, Cyrene Cruz, and Keshy Jeong, worked together to curate the exhibit, create promotional materials, and develop the virtual launch/program. They met with me regularly for a year through each phase of the project. I provided them with guidance, support, and resources to complete the virtual exhibit.
In addition to curation, student assistants often express interest in special collections and archives instruction to gain teaching experience. Beginning in the fall of 2019, lecturer Dr. Dawn A. Dennis and I, developed a project-based, active-learning experience through teaching history, archival practice, and primary source analysis in a race and ethnicity in the United States history course. The class met weekly in the special collections and archives reading room to process the correspondence and photographs of the Mervyn M. Dymally Papers. Hosting a class of over 30 students and training them in archival processing for a semester was a difficult feat, however, with the help of two student assistants, Cyrene Cruz and Jocelyn Acosta, the sessions were manageable and fruitful. The student assistants were present at each session to answer questions in regards to processing, kept track of student progress, and provided students with feedback. The peer-to-peer teaching model allowed the students in the course and the student assistants to focus on understanding the concepts of archival processing, which created a spirit of collaboration and cooperation.
The program is centered on our commitment to student success and fostering curiosity in the archival profession. The constructivist learning theory is at the heart of the program’s training and pedagogical approach. Bekki Brau (2018) centers constructivism on the notion that learners can construct their own meaning from their learning environment by being actively involved in the process of knowledge construction. The University at Buffalo’s Office of Curriculum, Assessment and Teaching Transformation describes examples of this approach as reciprocal teaching and learning; inquiry-based learning; problem-based learning; and cooperative learning. In this way, the mentoring program seeks to address gaps in mentorship revealed by Alex H. Poole (2017) related to ethnic and racial diversity in the archival profession. Poole interviewed 21 recipients of the Society of American Archivists’ Harold T. Pinkett Minority Student Award. Out of 19 interviewees asked about their mentorship relationships and five expressed that they did not feel that they were mentored. I personally related to these sentiments of mentorship relationships in MLIS programs and in the profession. Through the Cal State LA Student Assistant Program, I aspired to create opportunities for students that combined their lived experience and expertise with the skills they acquire through guidance and training in archival practice. Moreover, the program provides students with a space to engage in dialogue, exchange of ideas, and gain hands-on work experience. Throughout the program, students become more invested in their work and gain confidence in their skills to make them competitive within the field.
The mentorship aspect of the program is an organic process and relationship that is developed as the student begins to express interest in the profession. I begin by having conversations with them about the possibilities and realities of the field, which leads to assisting the student with applying to MLIS graduate schools, internships, and positions in the field. As a mentor, I am honest, supportive, and invested in each of the students that seek out my guidance and advice. I make time for conversations about the profession; review various drafts of cover letters, statements, and applications; create practice interview questions based on job descriptions and conduct mock interviews; provide references and letters of recommendation, and give overall moral support.
Providing mentorship and guidance to BIPOC students has been helpful not only to the students that are part of the program but also to my professional and personal growth. Several students who have participated in the program have since graduated and are now my colleagues in the field. We continue to provide moral support for one another and have developed the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) Women of Color Collective. We began the collective to provide interpersonal support to current and aspiring galleries, libraries, archives, and museum professionals. We are committed to developing a strong community for moral support and a safe space to have honest and true conversations about the profession. Mentorship and community are extremely important when we are thinking about creating a viable and sustainable career for potential and current BIPOC professionals in the archival field.
Brau, Bekki. “Constructivism.” In Education Research, edited by R. Kimmons. EdTech Books, 2018. https://edtechbooks.org/education_research/constructivismy.
“Constructivism.” Center for Education Innovation, Pedagogy and Design, Constructivism. The University at Buffalo. Accessed November 2021. http://www.buffalo.edu/ubcei/enhance/learning/constructivism.html.
Poole, Alex H., “Pinkett’s Charges: Recruiting, Retaining, and Mentoring Archivists of Color in the Twenty-First Century.” The American Archivist (2017) 80 (1): 103-134.