When Shireen Lewis entered grade school in Trinidad and Tobago, her country was in its early years of independence from Great Britain. Fortunately, it had a leader who acted on the maxim that educating its young people was essential to a successful future for the young Caribbean nation.
An oil boom provided money for the country's schools and Prime Minister Eric Williams, himself a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Oxford, provided an example that would inspire young people like Lewis. She grew up wanting to earn a Ph.D., because, she says, "It represented a university's highest degree."
She also grew up with something equally important to achieving that goal--the high expectations of a nurturing community that showed her how group support can be a key ingredient in individual success.
Years later, after undergraduate work at Rutgers University's Douglass College, a law degree from the University of Virginia, two years as a corporate litigator in New York City, and coursework at Duke for her doctorate in French, she found herself facing that ultimate and often lonely test of academic life--writing her dissertation.
"Dissertation writing is an alienating, isolating process," she says. At some point, almost every doctoral candidate faces the question, "Why am I doing this?" As a result, many never finish their degree.
Lewis says she, too, found herself bogging down, "So I woke up one morning and decided to do something about it."
She was living in Washington and knew a number of other women of color who were doctoral candidates. She called several of them and suggested they get together at Sisterspace & Books, a store focusing on books by and about African-American women. They met and hammered out ground rules for a support group that would focus not on socializing but on setting goals and finishing the dissertation.
Eight years later, SisterMentors has some two dozen "graduates." They represent a wide range of fields and a diverse group of institutions. But they have one thing in common--a sense of gratitude to Lewis and to SisterMentors. SisterMentors now operates as part of EduSeed, a nonprofit organization committed to promoting the values of education among traditionally disadvantaged and underserved communities. Lewis serves as executive director of EduSeed and continues her involvement in SisterMentors.
New women continue to come into the group. They meet regularly to report on progress, to set goals, to write, and to read and critique each other's work. Lewis says it makes for "a rich session," when women from all disciplines are reading a scholar's work.
In recent years, SisterMentors has begun to reach out through EduSeed to girls of color in middle schools and high schools, promoting the value of education, and showing them that by setting goals and persevering they, too, can aspire to academic success, even to a university's highest degree.
Shireen K. Lewis Ph.D. '98
Reaching out to the community
November 30, 2005