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Reflections on Mentorship:

“My superstar, role model, and mentor”

Donaldson Conserve, PhD

"A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” – Oprah Winfrey

Nearly 15 years ago, in 2006, when some of my peers at Queens College of the City University of New York were traveling abroad to polish their Spanish, I became interested in studying in France. As a native of Haiti who had forgotten most of my French after living in the U.S. for nearly a decade, I wanted to study in France to improve my French.

The fees for studying abroad were more than I expected, so I decided to explore other opportunities to travel to France. This led me to the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Program (MHIRT), which funds U.S. institutions to provide underrepresented students with research training opportunities in international settings. After reviewing all of the institutions funded by MHIRT, I found one that had an international site in France. This MHIRT program was led by Gary King, PhD, of The Pennsylvania State University (PSU).

I submitted my application and, after a few months of waiting and interviewing, I was selected.

Later in 2007, I boarded a plane to Paris, where I would spend the summer doing tobacco-related research at the National Institute for Health Education and Illness Prevention (known by its French acronym INPES) and brushing up my French. Dr. King and I would meet often to discuss my experience. He made himself available to discuss anything from my research to learning how analyze data using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) and how my family was doing back in the US. At the end of the summer, I returned to the US. satisfied with my research experience and with having regained the ability to converse in French.

Over the next few months, as I embarked on a new research project through the Minority Access to Research Careers program at Queens College, I reflected on my experience in France and began to develop a better understanding of research. However, I no longer had direct access to Dr. King and it dawned on me that there were not many Dr. Kings around. Yes, there were many researchers and professors at Queens College, but I could count how many of them were Black men – and none of them were public health or global health researchers.

That was when I realized that Dr. King had become a role model for me. He occupied the role for me that superstar athletes occupy for many young Black men – but the big difference was that there were (and still are) not many Black male superstar professors around for young Black men to see and look up to. The few that exist do not receive anything like the level of attention that is showered on athletic superstars. It’s no wonder that, as shown in the film Black Boys, many young Black men aspire to become athletes, not professors.

I am passionate about the Black Male Professors and Researchers Collective (BMPRC) because I want to showcase accomplished Black male professors and researchers and lift them up as role models for young Black men and demystify what it means to be a college professor or researcher for younger Black men in the US and abroad. I know just how much of a difference it made for me to have a Black male professor as a role model, and I want more young Black men to have the same opportunity I had.

"It became clear ... that my passion was not only an exciting career to pursue, but it was ... attainable to me – because I saw another Black man who was doing it." - Dr. Donaldson Conserve

Having met the individual who at that time was the only Black male superstar researcher in global health that I knew of, it became clear to me during my senior year in college that my passion for research and for working in different communities throughout the world was not only an exciting career to pursue, but it was a career that was attainable to me – because I saw another Black man who was doing it.

After participating in the MHIRT and MARC programs, I decided to pursue a career in global health research and was fortunate to be accepted into the doctorate program in the Department of Biobehavioral Health at PSU, where Dr. King served as my primary advisor, mentor, and more. With full access to Dr. King, I received the additional training I needed to work on my first publication on condom use among people living with HIV in Tanzania.

Dr. King and I would meet almost every Saturday to discuss my progress and he would provide me with feedback to improve the manuscript. From this experience, I developed the idea and analysis for my second publication, which focused on HIV testing among men in Tanzania. After working on these two papers, I was ready to work on my dissertation, having gained the confidence I needed to complete a three-paper dissertation and obtain my doctorate in 4 years.

Several years after I completed my doctorate, Dr. King and I continue to work together. We recently published two papers, one on quitting smoking among French and American smokers and one on strategies to increase HIV testing among men in Tanzania. Inspired by Dr. King’s long history of collaborations in France, I have developed my own collaborations with French public health researchers and recently co-authored a paper on the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on lifestyle changes among the general French population.

What began as a desire to improve my French opened the door for me to meet an exceptional mentor who enabled me to visualize a future as a global health researcher and then proceeded to give me the training I needed to succeed in academia. Dr. King remains a constant guide in my personal and professional life.

“I don’t care what you do for a living – if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.” – Denzel Washington

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