Manka Varghese makes room for different ways of being in academia

Any other mentor might have advised Maria Oropeza Fujimoto against the choices she made in graduate school: She got married. She moved thousands of miles away from her college. She had a baby. She worked a job while finishing her dissertation.

But Manka Varghese, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Washington and Oropeza’s mentor, didn’t see these choices as jeopardizing her mentee’s education. Varghese saw these choices as Oropeza living her life.

“I think Manka’s approach to mentoring is about relationships,” Oropeza said. “It’s about helping people develop their full potential and recognizing that life milestones are not barriers to professional development: they’re par for the course.”

Varghese, who has mentored and graduated 18 doctoral students and 53 master’s students, was recently awarded the Graduate School’s Marsha L. Landolt Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award. Most students say they’ve never had a mentor who has cared about them like Varghese has, especially because she sees how the ways that they are different from “traditional” graduate students — whether that’s age, socioeconomic background, or experiences — are assets for academia rather than risks.

“The kind of person you are rewarded for being in academia is often like everyone else — like a white heterosexual man is the normative way of being — so I’ve been intentional about trying to provide models for different ways of being in academia,” Varghese said. “I try to stress with my students that you don’t have to be like so-and-so. The way to make room for other people and other ways of being is to not just be like everyone else but to try to be different.”

Not only does Varghese make room for her students, but she does the work to support them. If a student is struggling financially to live in Seattle, Varghese helps them brainstorm funding options. If they plan to grow their family mid-doctoral program, Varghese helps them figure out how to take time off. If they have little research experience, she invites them to co-write papers or give lectures at conferences with her.

“I think that what is different about Manka from other mentors is she has a much broader definition of who can be mentored and what different mentees bring,” said Oropeza, who now works as an assistant professor at California State University, Los Angeles. “That definition, I think, is not grounded in ego or trying to advance her own career. I think it’s really grounded in a commitment to teaching.”

"That whole notion that you bring your whole self to what you do is really important. I think that people develop a lot of pain in whatever profession they’re in if you’re unable to bring your whole self."
Manka VargheseProfessor, UW College of Education

Creating the opportunities she wasn’t given

One of the things that makes Varghese a great mentor is that she never had one.

Growing up as an immigrant of color in Rome in the 1970s, Varghese attended an international school as a child. She felt a difference in her sense of belonging in the international school compared to the homogenous culture she stepped into when she left the classroom each day.

“I had this experience of how much education can matter in terms of making a person feel like they belong,” Varghese said.

But when she entered academia, first as a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania and then as a faculty member at UW, she learned the opposite could be true, too. Varghese did not have supportive mentors, and in fact, had some negative experiences with mentoring, leaving her on her own to navigate the higher education system and research world.

Manka Varghese with her colleagues after Varghese’s student, Julia Daniels (center) was given the AERA Division K Outstanding Dissertation Award in 2019.

She saw the consequences this had on women of color. When she became a professor, she looked up how many other full-time professors in the U.S. were also Asian American women: Only 3 percent. For other women of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, the numbers were even lower.

That’s why Varghese has dedicated her career to opening doors for students and teachers, especially without asking them to compromise their identities. Even her research reflects that: Varghese studies how teaching is a form of identity building, especially in bilingual teachers. She recently received a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to prepare and mentor bilingual teachers. Much of the funds also go to supporting students.

“I think that often we look at teaching and learning as we model on something, but often, we also teach and learn to provide something we didn’t get,” Varghese said.

Making room for difference

The first time Grace Gonzales met Varghese was before she’d applied to graduate school at the University of Washington. Gonzales wanted to study bilingual education in the Seattle area, and had heard Varghese was the resident expert. So Gonzales sent an email and received a reply from Varghese immediately, inviting her to visit.

Sitting in Varghese’s office, Gonzales found she had a good sense of humor and was easy to talk to. Varghese wanted to know all about Gonzales, not just academically, but as a person. Gonzales had one child and was considering having another, but was worried that might be looked down upon. But Varghese, also a parent, mentioned other doctoral students who had children during the program, and offered to connect Gonzales with them, not just to learn what parenting amidst graduate school was like but also how current students felt about Varghese as an advisor.

That was a few years ago. Now, Gonzales is in her second year of the education doctoral program as Varghese’s advisee, was able to take a leave of absence for spring quarter after giving birth to her second child, and is still involved in the research she’s passionate about. Gonzales said she couldn’t have done this without the support of Varghese, who helped her strategize childcare, gave advice on structuring her studies, and never questioned that Gonzales could be both an academic and a parent.

"It was obvious to me that a lot of people look at Manka as a mentor, even people who weren’t students. That’s special. I’m privileged to be part of the community she creates."
Grace GonzalesDoctoral student, UW College of Education

Varghese relates to her students by remembering what it was like to be in their place and what would have been helpful for her at those times, especially if she had been encouraged to celebrate her diverse identities in academia.

“I definitely bring that notion of mother-scholar; it’s very important to me and it’s very important for me that my students listen to that, even when they are men,” Varghese said. “That whole notion that you bring your whole self to what you do is really important. I think that people develop a lot of pain in whatever profession they’re in if you’re unable to bring your whole self.”

Before Rachel Snyder joined UW as a doctoral student in the College of Education, she had experience as an elementary school teacher but not as a researcher. But in her first year of graduate school, Varghese invited her to co-write a paper on teacher identity for dual language teachers, a topic they were both interested in. That same year, she also asked Snyder to present research with her at one of the largest conferences of education researchers in the country.

“She is thoughtful about considering what knowledge and experience I can bring to the table, especially with my experience as an elementary school teacher, and what learning opportunities might be helpful to me,” Snyder said. “I know she cares about me as a person. She takes time to check-in and see how I’m doing and have conversations about life outside of school and that’s not an experience I’ve had previously with advisors.”

Manka Varghese with her family

Varghese has also worked to build a community of mentorship amongst female faculty at UW. Along with other women faculty of color, she founded WIRED (Women Investigating Race, Ethnicity & Diversity), a small group that started with 15 faculty but grew much larger, becoming a support system for the women as they went up for tenure and promotions. They met for dinner in each other’s homes, reviewed each other’s papers, and shared what it was like to be new moms and raise children of color in Seattle. While the group isn’t as active as it used to be, it still remains a strong network for the faculty.

Varghese’s support for her colleagues isn’t just limited to UW. Across the U.S., other faculty consider her a mentor. They’ll reach out and ask for advice about which journal they should submit their research to. At education conferences, Varghese holds happy hours, where fellow researchers and students stop by to talk. Varghese’s students have observed how these types of environments are supportive and collaborative, rather than competitive.

“One of the things that’s amazing about Manka is she is someone who builds community,” said Gonzales, who recalled sitting at one of these conference meet-ups with academics around the country. “It was obvious to me that a lot of people look at Manka as a mentor, even people who weren’t students. That’s special. I’m privileged to be part of the community she creates.”

Want good mentors? Reward their work

Many students said they wouldn’t be where they are today without the mentorship of Varghese. Even so, Varghese said she doesn’t always feel like a great mentor. She wishes she had more time to give to her students. But even when she limits the number of students she mentors, she finds herself taking on more, because she doesn’t want to say no to the students who need her.

Varghese has observed that some people in academia don’t value mentoring for its ability to create a more diverse, inclusive community, and so the work of mentoring can often fall to people of color and women of color, when others don’t want to take it on.

“A mentoring award, for me, it means a lot because it’s such meaningful work for me, but frankly, it’s not really rewarded, usually,” Varghese said. “When people look at your end of year review, your merit, often that’s not what people are looking for. They are looking for your grants and number of publications. I’m not saying those aren’t important, but if we really cared about these other things, we would reward them as much. So I think until we create rewards for relational work, and I say that in a very feminist sense as well, we’re going to have always the same barriers.”

Varghese’s approach to mentoring — believing in her students’ unique identities rather than seeing them as risks — has worked. When she believed in Maria Oropeza Fujimoto’s ability to start a family and move across the country, all while working on her doctorate, Oropeza did it, and did it in 5 and a half years (well within the typical time it takes for most graduate students).

Now, as an assistant professor at California State University, Los Angeles, Oropeza is a mentor for her own group of doctoral students. She uses Varghese’s example of mentorship, from giving students her phone number so they can check in, to holding dinners with her students to build relationships, to seeing the differences her students bring to academia as strengths.

While Varghese became a great mentor because she didn’t have one, her students are becoming great mentors because they did.


Story by Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School

Lead photo by Jackie Russo

Originally published June 15, 2020