Where’s My Champion?
The Importance of Mentors Who Look Like Their Students

15 Feb 2022

Citizen Schools’ Catalyst program pairs mentors from diverse backgrounds with students to engage in meaningful real-world, problem-based projects that bridge gaps in education so that all students can succeed. In order to imagine themselves pursuing a career in STEM, students need to have authentic experiences, see diversity in their classrooms and be exposed to STEM career pathways.

Antia Thomas, Middle School Science Teacher

The following was written by Antia Thomas, a science teacher and DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM and/or military connected. Thomas was selected by Citizen Schools, a DSEC partner, as their DoD STEM ambassador for the 2020-2021 school year.

While I was growing up, it was tough for me to imagine a career in the sciences, but not because I didn’t believe that I could do it. I attended many academically and intellectually gifted classes, including Advanced Placement in high school where I earned college credits. I read about scientists in class, plus we had volunteer speakers who were working STEM professionals. My dilemma was this: where was my face? Not one of these adult role models looked like me—the little brown girl. This made me wonder if there was a place for me in a science career. I needed to see it. We’ve all heard the adage “seeing is believing.” For a child it’s definitely true! People relate best to those with similar backgrounds and experiences. Where was my champion?

“Every kid needs a champion,” says educator and poverty expert Rita Pierson in her phenomenal TED talk about supporting all students in their educational pursuits. The late Pierson took a particular interest in supporting underrepresented students and developed many seminars with this in mind, including “Helping Under-Resourced Learners” and “Meeting the Educational Needs of African American Boys.” She showed how students thrive on building significant relationships with role models. Student learning outcomes depend greatly on students’ ability to see themselves represented in their teachers, volunteers and classroom materials. Showing diversity in STEM is crucial to the success of not just our education systems but our STEM workforce as well. STEM programs across the country struggle with maintaining interest and enrollment, and most STEM organizations lack diversity. Why does it matter and how can we change?

The Gift of Diversity

It is vital that we give students the gift of diversity early on so that they gain those all-important soft skills needed for future success—such as effective communication and the ability to collaborate with others, including those from different backgrounds. According to Drexel University of Education, “not only does creating greater multicultural awareness and inclusion help students with different backgrounds and needs succeed, but it encourages acceptance and helps prepare students to thrive in an exponentially diverse world.” How else does one gain knowledge but through experience? Early exposure to STEM and diversity in the classroom helps students “pack their tool belts” not only with academic knowledge and interest but also opportunities to visualize their future selves pursuing a variety of professional careers.

It’s no secret that classrooms nationwide are becoming much more diverse. When students are exposed to different backgrounds, points of view and cultures, they become more open-minded and willing to work with others. They are more apt to feel confident and collaborate more effectively. In order to increase and maintain a diverse student pipeline into the STEM workforce, hook students early and keep them interested! Also, never underestimate the power of a person seeing themselves in the experiences of another person.

Case in point: I’m reminded of a young Black boy in my biotechnology class who was withdrawn and would throw a fit at the mere thought of speaking to adults and even other students. His home life had shaped his view of himself and the belief that he should be seen and not heard. After participating in Citizens Schools’ Catalyst program, we witnessed a dramatic turnaround. Suddenly, this withdrawn genius child saw himself in the career mentor, a Black male professional with Fidelity Investments who shared his love for kids and details about his personal life, such as teaching Sunday school. This lovely mentor spoke of his beginning ventures in the culinary sector and how he wanted more balance in his life, which led him to join Fidelity. After seeing the success of this Black man and hearing how happy and eager he was to assist and give back, the student began to open up to the mentor and show his work. He felt a bond and connection based on things he had in common with the mentor, including sometimes feeling torn in different directions. This student started to take the lead in his group and ended with a phenomenal project that he wanted to present to the school principal! This experience catapulted him into a whole new world of endless opportunities. Two years later, the student still recalls the project, exclaiming, “It was a pretty cool project and I loved getting to work with another adult too!” The volunteer continues to mentor students with the program today and continues his gift of relating to where students are—including challenges associated with virtual learning. Recently, a group of students shared observations about greenhouse gas emissions and how they relate to climate change and severe weather. In turn, the volunteer shared his company’s initiatives to slow global warming. The students were thrilled to know that even financial institutions are taking measures to do their part in the fight against climate change. Another volunteer shared a bit about her Indian heritage and how climate change is dramatically impacting her country and family members back home. These type of experiences make a world of difference for our Black, brown, and female students to encourage and support them to consider STEM careers.

Complex Problems Require Diverse Thinking

The STEM workforce is seeking to solve complex global problems. These issues must be addressed from a wider perspective and require the know-how of individuals who have been trained to work with others of varying backgrounds, cultures and views. Companies that are diverse and inclusive have an advantage over those that are not. When your company is diverse, you see a better cross-section of the communities which you serve. How do you make products for a specific group of people if those same people don’t have input into your process? By supporting diversity you also reach a larger audience. People relate to those who are like them. What’s more, people with different experiences offer valuable insight, allowing for a more innovative team.

I encourage all educators, community program managers and human resource professionals to champion strong initiatives to engage diverse volunteers into your local classrooms as well as your workplace. Please be the positive role model our students so desperately need while increasing your potential to broaden your influence world-wide. Will you be a champion?


Drexel University School of Education. "The Importance of Diversity in the Classroom." School of Education. Web. 14 Apr. 2021.

Every Kid Needs a Champion. Dir. Rita Pierson. Perf. Rita Pierson. TED. Web. 12 Apr. 2021.


Antia Thomas is a science teacher at Sherwood Githens Middle School where she was awarded Teacher of the Year in 2019. Born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, she is passionate about giving back to the school system that educated her. Thomas received her master’s degree in biotechnology from the University of Maryland Global campus and LEAP Agricultural Teaching Certification from North Carolina State University. She is a career and technical education teacher and focuses on biotechnology and environmental, plant, animal and food science. In addition to her classroom duties, Thomas mentors students and coaches a science team, provides authentic learning experiences in the classroom and community, heads the career and technical education department and serves on a host of teams and committees to support her students and school.


Citizen Schools is an educational outreach organization whose focus is to engage learners in hands-on authentic projects coupled with social, emotional and community mentor support. With an emphasis on providing positive and meaningful relationships for students, staff and partners of Citizen Schools work to bridge the gap in education and provide equity for all students. Through the Catalyst program, Citizen Schools brings career mentors into the classroom to teach high-quality experiential learning projects. These career mentors are industry professionals who come from diverse backgrounds and organizations to help students build confidence, develop critical social-emotional learning skills and explore STEM career pathways. For more information, visit citizenschools.org.