Alexander Byrd earns Presidential Mentoring Award

Alexander Byrd earns Presidential Mentoring Award

Special to the Rice News

The Presidential Mentoring Award is given annually to Rice faculty members who demonstrate a strong commitment to mentoring graduate or undergraduate students. Most award winners respond with a sense of satisfaction for being recognized for a job well done. When Alexander Byrd learned he had won the $2,000 award, his reaction was a little different: ”Really?”


Byrd, associate professor of history, had a group of high school students visiting campus and took them to meet University Professor Richard Tapia, who is director of the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education as well as head of the Presidential Mentoring Award selection committee. “He gave them a talk, and when he was done, he said, ‘Congratulations,”’ Byrd said. ”I asked, ‘For what?’ I was rather shocked and amazed, honestly.”

The shock and amazement may not have entirely worn off.

”I’ve been thinking about what I could have done to deserve it, and I wish I knew,” he said of the award for which he was nominated by graduate students and faculty members. ”The strange thing about it is I don’t have a lot of graduate students. I don’t think I got it for the number of Ph.D students I’ve worked with, so it must have been something in my teaching of Ph.D students. It’s wonderful recognition. I must have done something that affected them in such a way that they nominated me.”

Byrd, who has taught postgraduate students in classes covering race and education as well as the origins of Afro-America, said he approaches the mentoring process in a way similar to the teachers who inspired him during his studies.

”I try to do for them what my best teachers did for me,” he said. ”They were always pushing and prodding. I try to do that. My mentors took me seriously as a scholar early on — they engaged my work critically, in a way that might seem harsh, but that’s how colleagues respond to the work of their peers. So I’ve tried to respond critically to graduates whose work I read.”

Byrd also takes great care to make sure that he provides the right positive feedback when his students experience frustrations and begin to question themselves.

”My mentors were also encouraging,” he said. “There were times in my career when I started to doubt I could do this thing I had decided to do. At those times, my mentors were extraordinarily encouraging, telling me to get back to work. So I’ve also tried to provide similar encouragement.”

While grateful for the honor, Byrd said he’s not sure he’s willing to accept the praise that comes with the award.

”It means that I should get a lot better at mentoring graduate students, I think,” he said. ”One day I hope to be as good at this as the folks who’ve worked with me throughout my career.”

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