Cobbling together role models–GWIL and Neil deGrasse Tyson Posted on October 25th, 2015 by


This morning on PoliticsNation [MSNBC], I heard a terrific interview between host Al Sharpton and guest Neil deGrasse Tyson, the renowned astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium director (and invitee to our Nobel Conference a couple of years ago, but alas, his schedule was too tight) about engaging the public’s imagination for science and his own path to uber-success. Tyson is not only a smash in the science community among his research peers, but also a hit with laypeople because he makes the cosmos and big questions of the universe understandable to the rest of us non-physics-PhDs. The part of the interview that most struck me was when Sharpton asked Tyson about role models, because we know the power of role models and how inspirational they can be to our own ability to see ourselves in a particular role and show us the path by which to get there. Sharpton wanted to know how Tyson was able to become such a success without one, because in the 1970s, a black man who wanted to be an astrophysicist was a virtual impossibility to find, much less emulate.

I was delighted to be part of a women in leadership panel Wednesday night with President Bergman and Barb Larson Taylor, exploring vocation and career pathing. With that in mind, I loved what Tyson said: you shouldn’t wait to find the perfect role model before reaching for your dreams. If Tyson had waited to find an older, black, accomplished astrophysicist to serve as his role model, he would still be waiting! Tyson said we should cobble together our own role models, built from things we admire, love, and need to see embodied in many people, not just one ‘perfect’ person. So as a young man developing his own path, he drew on the academic and scientific accomplishments of other physicists, and added to that what he saw as the moral compass provided by his parents, and mixed in those he saw breaching that knowledge-based gap and making science understandable to anyone. You “staple them together” as a role model, and learn from specific things other people offer. And then, he says, you become your own person.

I love that, and it mirrors what I think many people do without even realizing it. That has certainly been my own path, and I can tell you specific people whose wisdom has informed my own professional practice in specific ways. In my post-undergraduate career, former managers at Star Bank in Cincinnati and Michigan National Bank in Grand Rapids have been instrumental in forming the way I think about treating people well and equitably in management situations. My former chairmen in two institutions have formed my way of thinking about academic relationships and helping students in creative ways. My dissertation mentor continues to influence how I assess scholarship and how I influence research agendas myself. None of these folks alone would have had the same impact as they do when I add them together holistically.

I think we should be talking about a patchwork of  role models—helping students see the tapestry of people on whose wisdom they may draw for different professional and personal development needs. It DOES take a village to help our students develop their best selves, their gifts and talents, and their sense of the possible in a complex world.


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