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2011 Dean’s Award: Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Professor of Sociology, earned his B.A. in Sociology from the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Bonilla-Silva held posts at the University of Michigan and at Texas A&M University before joining the faculty of Duke's Department of Sociology in 2006.  His research areas include racial stratification, social theory, critical race methods, political sociology, and Latin American and the Caribbean, and Epistemology. One of Dr. Bonilla-Silva's current projects is titled "We are All Americans! The Latin Americanization of Race Relations in the USA," and explores the changing dynamics of racial stratification in the United States.

In the four years since coming to Duke, Professor Bonilla-Silva's forceful mentorship has had a profound impact on the lives of many students both within and outside the department. They attest both to his generosity of spirit and his distinctive ability to exact the best from them while at the same time nurturing them in areas where they lack strength. Students find that "he combines a unique sense of humor with unfailing honesty, academic excellence, and compassion." One student admits to being somewhat "shell-shocked" when coping with the new and unanticipated demands of being a graduate student, noting that although Professor Bonilla-Silva "demanded more than I had ever done for any class," through extensive comments on weekly papers, "his constructive critiques drove me to produce better work. Had it not been for his class it would have taken me much longer to adjust to the rigor of graduate-level scholarship. He identified my weaknesses and took time to address them with me, always emphasizing that with some work I would eventually get to the ‘sociological promised land.' He saw my potential and invested time in me even when I was not sure I could do it." Another student seconds this recognition of Professor Bonilla-Silva's unfailing faith in his students, "He has always believed in me, even when I doubted myself, and he has been one of my loudest supporters and cheerleaders to anyone who was around him." While "he is incredibly supportive of his students, he does not coddle us: his praise and encouragement are peppered with a healthy dose of realism and his signature honesty." Professor Bonilla-Silva's belief in the abilities of his students underlies his challenge to them to work to their highest potential.

Professor Bonilla-Silva's mentorship crosses departmental lines; he has served on preliminary exam and dissertation committees for students outside his department "in spite of having many mentoring responsibilities within the Department of Sociology. This underscores not only his commitment to graduate student mentorship, but also to innovative cross-departmental forms of mentorship." Sometimes his mentorship pre-dates a student's arrival at Duke; a first-year Ph.D. student notes that "He began mentoring me by sending a congratulatory e-mail for being accepted, along with a reading list to finish by the end of the summer." Once here, the student says, "He has continued to offer guidance despite the fact that he is not my advisor and has many other students he mentors in the department."

In other cases, Professor Bonilla-Silva has encouraged students who had originally intended to pursue graduate study elsewhere to apply to Duke, and taken an active interest in their success once they matriculated: "During my first semester Dr. Bonilla-Silva showed his commitment to my success. Although my undergraduate education had prepared me well for most of the challenges of graduate school, the transition from a mostly qualitative program to a highly quantitative top department was somewhat overwhelming. During my first semester, I struggled through a statistics class and barely passed. Unlike many professors who may have seen this as a sign of intellectual weakness or lack of effort, Dr. Bonilla-Silva recognized that I had worked hard over the course of the semester and that I was capable of learning the material. He helped me schedule meetings with the DGS, devise a plan of action for the next year of my studies, and this ultimately got me through the course." In fact, the student says, coming to Duke "was the best academic decision I could have made as Dr. Bonilla-Silva has guided me through Duke's program with a level of attention to my scholarship and personal care that is the envy of my colleagues at peer institutions."

Professor Bonilla-Silva's mentoring is sustained over the course of a graduate student's career, providing "just-in-time" assistance relevant to the student's current status. He "is one of the few professors who students can go to for consistently helpful feedback; his comments are always appropriate to the stage of the writing process. Once I passed my preliminary exams Professor Bonilla-Silva took the time to sit with me and discuss my goals and future plans. Where did I want to go? Afterwards, he helped me construct a path to get there." He is also active in helping students build networks and is open to collaborations that result in publishable work. "Over the past two years I have met with multiple non-Duke scholars thanks to Professor Bonilla-Silva's help. He has helped me develop my own network with some of the top critical demographers in the nation. He also encourages me to work with other faculty members in the department so I can continue to extend my network beyond his own." Another student observes that Professor Bonilla-Silva "wants to prepare his mentees for the next step:" "On fellowship my second year, he allowed me to sit in on his undergraduate Racial & Ethnic Stratification course so that I could gain experience on how to approach teaching undergraduates. In my fifth year, I am currently TAing for this course with him and will be the instructor for the course next semester. My experiences with him have fully prepared me to tackle this exciting opportunity."  Not only does Professor Bonilla-Silva assure that students have teaching experience, "but also he works actively with all of his students to produce publishable scholarship." Students are frequent collaborators on both articles and book chapters.

Professor Bonilla-Silva's support of students encompasses the many aspects of becoming a scholar, as one student says "The relationship Dr. Bonilla-Silva has with his graduate students goes beyond offering comments on a paper draft or advice on journal submissions. He opens his life and his home to students in ways that are unprecedented. He realizes that to succeed in graduate school the support one needs comes in many forms and that his job is to create an environment where we feel worthy, capable, and prepared to face the challenges we are all sure to have."