Exemplary mentoring boosts undergraduate scholarship

Author: Morgan Lee

The mentoring of undergraduates is both a calling and a passion. It requires much of both the faculty member and the student—but the rewards can be enormous.

“Engagement at Kellogg is an intellectual, deep engagement,” says Kellogg Assistant Director Holly Rivers. “Excellent mentoring can propel an already-outstanding student into one who is passionate about both undergraduate and post-baccalaureate studies.”

Faculty Fellow Paul Ocobock, a historian of 20th-century Africa, and International Scholar Bright Gyamfi ’16 understand very well the demands and rewards of good mentoring.

A Good Mentor Pushes and Challenges the Student

Gyamfi, a history and political science major born in Ghana who moved to the US when he was 13, immersed himself in research and study from the time he arrived on campus.  

Ocobock calls him “an insanely impressive undergraduate—in many ways, Bright has the knowledge and analytical skills of an advanced graduate student.”

As a first-year student, Gyamfi was one of 50 undergraduates nationwide selected to attend the Public Policy and Leadership Conference at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Since then, he has attended conferences and earned grants from Kellogg, the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, and the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program—all of which have allowed him to delve into archives in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, as well as in London and Port of Spain to explore how the teaching of African history has influenced Ghanaians’ impressions of their own history. He is applying now to graduate programs.

It was Ocobock’s class on the African slave trade that opened Gyamfi’s eyes to how skewed his knowledge was of Ghanaian history.

“In high school,” he explains, “we learned history from the perspective of the colonizer—as Chinua Achebe describes it, as the story of the hunted being told by the hunter.”

Gyamfi resolved immediately to remedy that distorted view.

“I never missed Professor Ocobock’s office hours my first semester here at Notre Dame,” says Gyamfi. “He gave me articles and primary sources to read. I stayed up late at night watching documentaries on African history.”

Gyamfi next enrolled in Ocobock’s course on modern Africa—and that is when the mentoring truly hit its mark.

“Professor Ocobock pushed and challenged me. He helped me craft my research focus on the development of the Ghanaian history curriculum,” Gyamfi explains. “He inundated me with information about primary sources, historical analysis, research grants, and the International Scholars Program (ISP), as well as conferences and resources at other institutions.”

In addition, Ocobock has introduced Gyamfi to colleagues for even more mentoring—what Ocobock calls the necessary “constellation of mentors.” That constellation includes, among others at the University and beyond, Faculty Fellow Jaimie Bleck, Gyamfi’s ISP partner.

A Good Mentee Is Ambitious, Entrepreneurial, and Passionate about Research

What does an exemplary mentoring relationship look like?


Words from Former Students

My relationship with Paul Ocobock was the single most important part of my academic experience at Notre Dame. As my academic adviser, Paul was incredibly generous, not only providing methods training and help with ideas for my research, but also reading and line editing numerous drafts of papers, thesis chapters, and grant proposals. But Paul went above and beyond his role as an academic adviser, and for that I am enormously grateful. During my time at the University, he offered career and life advice, and I firmly believe that I would not have had many of the wonderful opportunities at Notre Dame and beyond without his patience and guidance. He remains a great friend and mentor, and I still look to him for academic and career advice.

Alexander (“Py”) Killen ’14 is in the African Studies Master’s Program at Yale University.

Professor Ocobock challenged me in my research and coursework, all while relating to me on a personal level. His accessibility and charismatic demeanor allow him to form deep relationships with his students. His unwillingness to accept anything less than a individual's best effort is what makes those students succeed, both at the University of Notre Dame and in their post-graduate years. Professor Ocobock guided me in my vocation—from the Africa Working Group at Notre Dame and the International Scholars Program, to independent research in Sierra Leone and graduate work at Oxford. His mentorship has been indispensable to my professional development.

Catherine Reidy ’13, who earned an MSc in African Studies at the University of Oxford, is now a researcher at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy in New York City.

The first requirement, Ocobock says, is that a student must be “ambitious and entrepreneurial.”

“It can be difficult to come up with your own research ideas and obtain grant money,” he points out. “Students must also have a sense of adventure and be willing to put in the hours to write a persuasive proposal for funding—especially students who study Africa.”

In fact, Ocobock usually agrees to take on as mentees only students who travel abroad for their research.

“My best students fling themselves into adventure,” he asserts.

Catherine Reidy ’13 modeled that adventurous spirit as she researched Sierra Leone youths’ hopes and fears for the future as a window into peace building. And Alexander (“Py”) Killen ’14 did the same as he researched hip-hop in Uganda—an endeavor that was rewarded with senior thesis prizes from the Departments of History and Africana Studies. (See sidebar for their tributes to Ocobock.)

The second requirement for students—“passion for what you do”—is offered by Gyamfi.

“Passion makes you transcend other students,” he says. “Learning becomes different when you take the focus off grades.”

And, as demonstrated by the reams of red-lined drafts—both papers and grant applications—that Ocobock and Gyamfi have exchanged, the third requirement for a good mentoring relationship is the ability to take criticism and direction.

“Professor Ocobock’s comments and questions are the key to my formation as a critical thinker,” Gyamfi says. “He will not let me romanticize my subject or my argument.”

Enormous Benefits to Both Professor and Student

Given those steep requirements, the benefits of the mentoring relationship better be great—which they are, both Ocobock and Gyamfi believe.

“My students make me entrepreneurial myself,” Ocobock says. “They push me beyond the confines of my own work and keep me from being narrow.”

The benefits are even greater for the student.

“In addition to providing recommendations and introductions to academics around the world, my mentors have gone over papers and applications line by line, “Gyamfi says. “Their attention and careful reading make me a better scholar.”

That is precisely why Ocobock does what he does.

“I am relentless in encouraging my students to engage in research and to seek out all the opportunities available to them at Kellogg and the University,” he says. “Notre Dame students yearn to be global citizens, and I want them to know they can accomplish that in concrete ways. While they can pour their passion into classwork, pouring it as well into research, internships, and other experiences can be even more rewarding.”

Originally published by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies

Mary Hendriksen • February 1, 2016