Being truly caring is what defines a good person and a great mentor. And when Dr. Donald Dabdub, the recipient of the 2018 Tom Angell Faculty Mentoring Award, pulled out his phone to read his personal motto, he refocused the conversation onto the first and most important part of mentoring: really caring.

That is why we were happy to congratulate Dr. Donald Dabdub for his Tom Angell Faculty Mentoring Award. Named after Tom Angell — UCI’s first Graduate Counselor — this award recognizes graduate students, faculty, and post-doctoral scholars who have demonstrated outstanding mentorship to graduate and undergraduate UCI students.

While Dr. Dabdub received the award in person at the 4th Annual Mentoring for Achievement and Excellence event in February, the Graduate Division also awarded the $500 Tom Angell Fellowship to a graduate student of his choice.

Because of his impressive history of mentorship focusing on first-generation college students and international students, OVPTL sat down with Dr. Dabdub and asked him about his mentorship experiences and lessons he has learned along the way.

After caring, “the second most important thing to remember about mentoring is to remain honest. You cannot inflate your students’ hopes and you cannot be quiet when you disagree with something. Honest feedback creates a real relationship, and builds a foundation of trust because that’s what students are really looking for.”

Did you learn that from your mentors? Who were they if you don’t mind me asking? They must have been pretty impressive to have influenced you so profoundly that you’re winning an award for mentorship now!

“When I was a Ph.D. student, my advisor was my mentor. It was not like a formal structure where you sit down and mentor. That did not happen to me. What happened was that he allowed me a window to see into his world. And through that window, I was able to learn, for example, how to write a proposal. I saw him doing what he did, and because he invited me to see and experience his actions, I learned a lot. It was unstructured, but that is what made it so powerful, and that is what I try to bring to my mentorship.”

Opening up that window — how do you do it? Is it difficult to be that open with students?

“The key to letting students in is vulnerability. That is what is really important for them to see. In fact, I would say it is probably the third most important thing to being a good mentor. It is easy for students to see the successes of professors. They see that every day — the resume, ‘graduated here,’ ‘published these papers,’ and ‘received this funding.’ But I try to emphasize the times I was rejected.”

“As a mentor, you need to share the proposals for millions of dollars of funding that didn’t go through. Sharing what has gone wrong humanizes you and allows for a stronger connection. An ivory tower does not help anyone. Instead, mentors need to teach how to fail safely and often. To my Ph.D. students, if I have any advice for getting a faculty position, it is that your goal should be to get rejected 50 times. When students see that you are human, the connection is real and the trust grows. Mentoring should teach people that failure in the pursuit of greater things will ultimately lead to some success.”

You are absolutely right, anyone can Google your successes, but to acknowledge or even display your failures — that is true bravery.

“It happened organically. I was never told I had to mentor, it just happened. As a faculty member I volunteered to be an advisor for undergrads 23 years ago before UCI had full-time academic advisors. I enjoyed it and karma works in interesting ways, which ultimately led to my role today as Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education. By the time I came to this job, I knew mentorship was important to me. Now I cannot imagine doing anything else.”

How do you build such strong relationships with students? What is the secret that keeps them in your life for years afterward?

“Unequivocally, it is trust. I know it sounds basic, but it is true. Trust is related to honesty, but I mean trust in the sense that you are looking out for what is best for them. There must be trust that whatever you do or share or not do or share is for the mentee’s benefit. You can’t be selling anything or trying to persuade mentees. Lack of trust precludes a candid conversation. So I would say that trust is the fourth most important quality to have if you want to be a good mentor.”

Once you have this open honest dialogue going, in what sort of areas do you try to mentor students? What specifically do you help your mentees achieve?

“As a faculty member I I have been working with students mostly in my department — Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. My favorite class to teach is Introduction to Engineering Computations. When I first started teaching the class, we had 20 students, and now it is taught 2-3 times per year with 250 students in each class.  It is still one of the best experiences of my teaching career. We cover introductory programming, but I always make a point during lectures to talk to my students about the great resources on campus, like Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), Capital Internships Program (UCDC), the Scholarship Opportunities Program and other units in the Division of Undergraduate Education.”

That is great to hear! OVPTL is always trying to spread the word about DUE, but you are doing our work for us! Between all those classes and all those students, when do you have time for mentorship?

“I’m really glad you asked that because finding time is one of the most difficult and crucial parts of mentorship, and one that many faculty members struggle with. You have to make time. Mentorship is a process, and if you commit to meet, then you need to meet.”

“We are all pulled in many different directions by the system. We are asked how many proposals we’ve written, but not how many hours we’ve spent with mentees. So as mentors we need to make the time an important priority. And that might mean staying up later or getting up earlier. You need to keep in mind that the time you invest is directly proportional to the impact you generate.”

Is that why you invest so much time into mentoring first-generation students? Do they need extra attention or do they just hold a particular place in your heart?”

“You got me, I am a first-generation student and I know how challenging college can be. Especially if you come from a family that has never gone to college. There is often a lot of information that first generation students haven’t been exposed to. I have found that through mentoring, I can help first-generation students learn the value of talking about goals, and family, and life.”

“Mentorship is really important for first-generation students because people have never talked to them about things like choosing a major, how to study, what opportunities are available on campus, finding a job and even retirement plans. These students typically have little to no guidance from their parents. That is why it is up to us faculty members to reach out.”

I agree that faculty members are in a unique position to help. What would you say sets faculty mentorship apart from peer-to-peer mentorship? Why is it so important that they reach out?

“Faculty mentors are generally speaking from experience. Students might get their first job offer, and when they have been looking for a long time they feel obligated to take it. But you still have choices and when you have domain experience or life experience, you can speak from that platform and make a difference. Many students have never had a real-world job or academic opportunities, so being able to guide them, speaking from experience, is extremely important. Experience is definitely the sixth quality a mentor absolutely must have.”

You say to speak from a place of experience, but how do you use that experience to influence a student’s life? What is your outlook or goal when you enter into mentorship?

“I see mentoring like a fatherly role, helping mentees get their act together, or even helping them with negotiating salary. There is no set course on how to negotiate a job offer or rejection or all the real-world things that have to do with having a family and a job. And it is even tougher as a first-generation student.”

“But as the ‘father’ in this mentor/mentee relationship, you have to respect the direction that the mentee wants to go. You aren’t trying to create a bunch of Mini Mes. If someone wants to do a startup, you have to respect that, and you have to guide them in the direction that the mentee wants to go.”

“That’s really the last thing that mentors should keep in mind. Respecting your mentee’s choices and drive and helping them along their own path rather than redirecting it. Even if you cannot see what is at the end of the path, eventually you have to trust that you have given them the tools they need to succeed. Just keep reminding them that you will always be there to help them pick themselves back up after failure and that you trust them to succeed eventually. That is really all you can hope to do.”

A caring mentor, and a kind man, Dr. Dabdub’s words profoundly moved us over here at OVPTL. We hope that everyone takes advantage of his advice, and the high-quality mentorship that UCI offers. After all, helping each other, caring for each other — that is really what being an Anteater is all about, and that is why Dr. Dabdub is so deserving of the Tom Angell Faculty Mentoring Award.

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