Obtaining a doctorate is different from getting a bachelors
or masters degree. For one thing, the duration of time it
takes to get a doctorate is longer, seven to ten years on
Then theres the research, which, depending on the subject
of study, may require the doctoral student to travel extensively.
Once the research is done, theres a dissertation to
write and there, said Dr Shireen Lewis, is where many people
Holder of a PhD in French Literature from Duke University,
Lewis, 46, knows firsthand how trying the process can be for
a doctoral student.
tells you what it takes to do a PhD. Here I was, just returned
from doing research in Paris and Senegal and I am feeling
isolated, lonely and disconnected. There was very little direction
from my professors, she said.
Realising there may be other women of colour who were experiencing
the same feelings with their studies, Lewis reached out to
them and SisterMentors was born.
An organisation which provides space where coloured female
doctoral candidates can come together and help each other
complete their doctoral studies, SisterMentors started out
in 1997 as a study group with four women in a space donated
by Sisterspace and Books, a bookstore.
Today, the organisation has grown and has thus far has helped
25 women complete their studies.
took off like it had a life of its own, said Lewis,
who is currently on vacation in Trinidad and Tobago, her first
visit in 17 years.
hadnt done the research, but women kept coming and I
wanted to know why. The research showed that 50 per cent of
people drop out of doctoral programmes and support is one
of the ways to fight that, she said. We started
in September 1997 and six months after that, the first woman
Each graduation, Lewis explained, is accompanied by a big
celebration with roses and a Watermans fountain pen
with the persons name and new title, given as gifts.
Open to all women of colour, that is, all Asians, Latinos,
Afro-Americans, Native Americans and immigrants of colour,
SisterMentors assists women by creating a forum where they
can discuss the challenges they are experiencing with their
2003, out of 50.6 per cent of women doctorates, only 10.6
per cent went to women of colour African American,
Latina, Asian American and Native American combined,
said Lewis, quoting from statistics published in the SisterMentors
Based in Washington, DC, where Lewis now lives, SisterMentors
meets once every three weeks. While the women are encouraged
at the beginning of the year to set long-term goals, usually
for a six-month duration, they use the meetings to set short-term
if you say by the end of June, I want to write two chapters
of my dissertation, every three weeks, you set a new goal
to help you realise that, explained Lewis. You
come to the meetings and say, I want to write five pages
and read two books. Thats a promise you are making
to the women in your group. Outside the meetings, people reach
out to each other via e-mails or private meetings.
Acknowledging that such fora could open the door for the exposure
of more personal issues, Lewis said at times women have sobbed
uncontrollably at sessions.
have been discussions about unsupportive professors and personal
stuff. We give comfort and advice.
Stating that the waiting list for membership to SisterMentors
is long, Lewis said they are only interested in women who
are serious and committed.
have to understand our mission and you must understand you
have to give back and that means giving up your time,
Giving back in SisterMentors means mentoring young girls of
colour to ensure they at least get a college education.
In 2001, the organisation expanded to include mentoring.
came because one of the women did her work on girls
education in Africa and she wanted us to focus on girls of
colour in America.
We want to encourage girls who dont have much opportunities,
girls who have no family that went to college and girls who
qualify for free meals in school because their families are
poor, Lewis said, adding that the first group of girls
mentored by SisterMentors will enter college in 2007.
reason so few non-white women were doing PhDs is because so
few of us were getting through the pipeline. The pipeline
issue wasnt being addressed. You have drop-outs happening
along the way, girls getting pregnant, losing interest.
Stating that she was the first black person to get a PhD in
French at Duke University in 1998, Lewis said universities
in the US generally do not have good track records of getting
women of colour into PhD programmes.
While agreeing that many people only see PhDs as good for
lecturing and therein may lie the turn off, Lewis said there
are very few jobs for PhDs at university levels now. As such,
the job crisis is forcing the experts to find ways to make
PhD holders useful to society at large.
go on to work at non-profit organisations, or with government
or the political think-tanks, she said.
While there are no chapters of SisterMentors outside DC, Lewis
said she may consider starting one in T&T if there is
interest and support.
SisterMentors functions under the umbrella of Eduseed, a non-profit
organisation of which Lewis is the executive director.
Eduseed, she said, currently has plans to start a programme
teaching children of colour how to be media savvy by understanding
the media, the messages it puts out and how to critically
in Pepper Village, Fyzabad, South Trinidad, Lewis attended
the Pepper Village Government school and later the Palo Seco
Secondary school. With only four OLevels, she found
it difficult to get into an ALevel programme and was
eventually admitted to the Polytechnic School in St James
where she did French and Spanish.
After ALevels, Lewis taught at Holy Faith Convent, Penal,
then a private school, before migrating to the US with her
sisters in 1981.
She applied and was accepted to Douglass College, an all-girls
campus of Rutgers University, where she studied French and
Spanish. As part of the programme, she spent a year in France,
dividing her time between Tours and Paris, where she was discouraged
by a professor to pursue her dream of doing a PhD. Instead,
he convinced her to do law, which she did at the University
Following law school, Lewis practised law in New York City
but found herself longing to follow her dream of doing a PhD.
She applied to Duke University and did her degree in French
Literature with a focus on Francophone West African and Caribbean
Her dissertation gave birth to a newly released book, Race,
Culture and Identity: Francophone West African and Caribbean
Literature and Theory from Negritude to Creolite, published
by Lexington Books, a division of Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
The book will be available in Politics and Prose in Washington,
DC and two bookstores in Paris. Lewis is scheduled to visit
the city in October for a reading.
Lewis is also a columnist for Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education.
In addition to her many activities, she has helped raise funds
for the first school in Tibet which promotes education for
girls and is the past co-president of the Washington DC branch
of the American Association of University Women.
On the Net: www.sistermentors.org