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CSS scholar Najla Ward-Conyers

“Latch on to those relationships”

March 17, 2022

For Najla Ward-Conyers (UNC ’22, CSS 6), the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program hasn’t just provided academic and personal mentorship—it’s helped her become a trusted mentor to other students as well.

When Najla Ward-Conyers came to Carolina, she quickly embraced the mentorship built into the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program.

“I felt really supported by CSS, even right after Summer EXCELerator,” she shared. “Dr. Noelle Romero, my CSS program coordinator, has been great as I decided what I wanted my four years to be and what I want to do after graduation, and giving me support through that.”

The CSS program coordinators build relationships with each scholar through intensive mentorship and advising, covering any and all topics that impact a scholar’s life. By getting to know each student well, CSS staff can match students with tailored opportunities that help further their personal and professional development.

Thanks to a connection made through CSS executive director Dr. Thomas Freeman, Ward-Conyers found encouraging research mentors in the Neher lab, who nurtured her development as a scientist.

“Dr. Nikea Pittman is a post-doc in my lab, and she’s pretty much taken me under her wing since my first day there two years ago,” Ward-Conyers said. “Both she and my PI [principal investigator] have been really helpful in forming my own project and getting the support and space to do whatever I needed.”

Now, the senior biology major from Charlotte, NC has taken on the role of mentor herself, both in the classroom and in the greater Carolina community. For the past year, she has served as a peer mentor for an analytical chemistry course and as a resident advisor mentor for the Lower and Upper Quad communities of Carolina Housing.

“As part of the residential life leadership team, I have about 20 RAs who come to me for support through their programming efforts and everything else that comes with their job,” Ward-Conyers said. “My supervisor has been great. She’s really challenged me, which has allowed me to step into this leadership role.”

We spoke with Ward-Conyers about the lessons she learned about being a good mentor and finding mentorship in unexpected places.

In what ways has CSS helped you find mentors here at UNC?

When I was talking with anyone in CSS, they were genuinely interested in me. They took the time to learn more about me, so they were able to find people and positions that would benefit me. Dr. Freeman connected me with my research mentor because he knew the things I was interested in and knew this lab would be a great fit. Even with housing—I knew I wanted to become an RA because of the support I got from my CSS RAs during my first year.

Have you found mentorship in any unusual or non-traditional places?

Even though I don’t explicitly call them my mentors, I would say that every single person in my cohort has mentored me in some way or given me some new perspective. All of the connections, no matter how small, have led me to take on these leadership positions and do stuff I really, really enjoy. I really appreciate the care that is given to each cohort, because it can be a little scary at a really big school, so you just have to latch on to those relationships with people who care about you.

What makes a good mentor?

Creating a genuine interest in people—not taking on a mentorship or leadership role for my own benefit, but because I’m really interested in making the experience, or class, or RA role a better place for people to be. Creating connections beyond just what is asked for—building a connection that’s more of a friendship. For example, when I mentor students in chemistry, they know they can come to me for other things too. Being approachable; I feel like it helps to be a better mentor when people see that you are coming to them as a full human and you see them as a full person.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic shaped your approach to mentorship?

It has changed what I thought mentorship had to be. Before the pandemic, I thought that the best way to create a relationship was through doing things together in person, but now I understand that it’s just about being approachable and connecting. There’s been lots of Zooming, lots of FaceTiming, lots of texting, but I still feel like I’m creating good relationships and good connections.

What advice do you have for students who are looking for mentors?

Find the people who have a genuine interest in you. I could have gone to many people to be mentored, but I knew they didn’t always have my best interests at heart. I think you’ll know when people are really interested in getting to know you and being there to help you through your journey, and when you do find those people, latch on to them.

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