Transformative Mentorship for 21st Century Health Challenges

Dr. Olayinka Folake and MsGloria Igihozo are one of 25 mentor-mentee pairs in UGHE’s Mentorship Program, a pioneering two-year initiative hosted by the Center for Gender Equity providing formal frameworks for transformative mentorship in Africa.

Set against the backdrop of an increasingly complex and demanding world, mentorship is a proven tool to help learners find and enact their full potential and navigate the often labyrinthine path to career success. But few institutionalized frameworks exist to connect and support mentees and mentors on this journey. Gloria Igihozo and Dr. Folake Olayinka are one of 25 mentor-mentee pairs in UGHE’s Mentorship Program, a pioneering two-year initiative hosted by the Center for Gender Equity providing formal frameworks for transformative mentorship in Africa. Participants of the first cohort, hailing from 28 countries globally, have benefited from tailored training in career management, and gained critical skills in leadership, decision-making, negotiation, work-life balance, influencing and motivating others, optimizing cross-functional and diverse teams, and driving culture and change. 

This was Gloria’s first foray into the world of mentorship, which came with some initial preconceptions about what the experience would offer, and the type of relationship she’d have with a leader in the field. ‘My first thoughts were that it would be a very formal, perhaps serious  exchange given the level of experience my mentor had’, she explains. ‘Right from the onset I realised I was wrong. Dr. Folake was very open, conversational and friendly’. When you meet Dr. Folake, you realize this is an innate part of who she is, but the openness she instills into the regular conversations she has with Gloria is also deliberate.For this mentorship experience to be of personal and professional value to Gloria, it’s important that we build trust between us.’ she explains. ‘Trust cannot be obtained without an open and transparent and honest environment. So we ensure nothing is off limits in our meetings’.

Gloria Igihozo graduates from UGHE’s MGHD program in August 2020 as UGHE’s first virtual commencement with a small, socially-distanced ceremony on Butaro Campus.

The Mentorship Program recognizes, and encourages, a distinction between ‘coaching’ and ‘mentorship’. Whereas coaching is specifically tied to optimizing professional performance, mentoring has – especially over the last decade – been focussed on more holistic ‘life guidance’ that seamlessly blends the personal and professional as a means of building capacity in the next generation. This is true for Gloria and Dr. Folake. ‘What I like best about our relationship’ Gloria relates, ‘is that it’s not just professional guidance. The advice I’m given, for instance, on work conflict or imposter syndrome, are skill sets I can directly apply in my personal life which in turn supports my process of self growth.’

Dr. Folake offers a clear reason for prioritizing the personal in mentorship;  ‘For women, our personal and professional lives are so intertwined that we have to consider one with the other’. Throughout her 25 years experience as a medical doctor and public health specialist in maternal and child health,malaria and immunization, Dr. Folake has herself negotiated the often difficult balancing act between family life and career, making choices on two occasions to accept a lower paying, less demanding job that would provide more bandwidth to dedicate to her three small children at the time.  

Dr. Dr. Olayinka Folake chairs a high level panel on family and career balance at the 2019 Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, hosted by UGHE in Kigali.

For Gloria, Dr. Folake represents not just an experienced advisor, but also as a beacon of hope for the future. In the face of a white, male dominated global health leadership, Gloria sees in Dr. Folake someone ‘so much like herself’ and tangible proof that ‘there are women of color occupying high-level positions in global health’. Whilst of different nationalities, ages and career stages, both women have, and continue to experience gender-related barriers in the field.  

At the start of her career, Dr. Folake experienced gender inequities in pursuing a path that few women in her orbit were advancing in at the time. She shared an experience when, many years ago, she was offered a dream job, only for it to be retracted days later on the grounds that ‘they’d been advised not to hire women because of social precedence’. Dr. Folake reflects on this experience as blatant evidence of the deep-rooted patriarchal structures that persist within past and present global health systems. ‘Hearing first hand how [Dr. Folake] navigated these barriers was so inspiring’, Gloria relates. ‘It showed me the possibility of breaking the glass ceiling, with the presence of supportive networks and an openness to learn something new from each experience.’ 

It’s clear that through the experiences of this mentor-mentee pairing, and as backed by research, mentorship is not a unidirectional, but bi-directional, process of self discovery with proven benefits for both mentee and mentor. Yet when searching ‘mentorship’ online, the most commonly occuring definitions are summarized as ‘the guidance provided by a mentor, especially an experienced person in a company or educational institution’. UGHE’s Mentorship Program reimagines mentorship by facilitating bi-directional exchange, an idea reinforced throughout the supporting webinars that run alongside the program. ‘I’m learning a lot from Gloria and her open, energetic, and organized approach to learning’. Dr. Folake explains. ‘She has made me a better person by asking critical questions which sparks my own process of reflection and learning.’

Gloria Igihozo stands outside the Butaro Campus inauguration plaque, where she was a masters student in the Class of 2020.

Leadership skills, so often seen as surplus to clinical training, are central to UGHE’s educational offering and ingrained across all curricula. UGHE is striking out the understanding that leadership is solely a born or inherited behaviour open to only the extrovert or assertive, but rather a learnt skill acquired through robust training and an openness to others. Building on the leadership training she received during her MGHD (masters) year at UGHE, Gloria has seen the principles of strong leadership manifested in real time within her mentor. ‘Dr. Folake’s emphasis on not sugar coating, but being honest about her personal journey is so admirable.’ Gloria reflects. ‘She’s taught me that leaders are not necessarily extroverted, but able to exercise their personalities and show their assertiveness by charting their own paths to challenging discriminations – against  gender or race for example – in a way that is constructive. Most of all, she’s shown me the impact of compassionate leadership.’

Dr. Folake herself is a strong believer in leading by example; ‘My approach with Gloria is to enact and integrate leadership qualities throughout our discussions, peppered with examples. Leadership is a lot about listening, communicating effectively, striving towards a shared vision, and motivating people.’ She explains. ‘It’s not a destination, it’s a journey.’ 

Dr. Olayinka Folake presents a powerful contribution to a session exploring gender equity in clinical service delivery at the 2019 Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, hosted by UGHE.

Recognizing that, increasingly, global outbreaks and pandemics require transnational and multi-sectoral responses, UGHE’s Mentorship Program is specifically designed to pair leaders and learners across different geographies, cultures, and social backgrounds by conducting both trainings and pairing virtually. ‘It’s helped us bridge the geographical divide and build a close bond.’ explains Dr. Folake, a sentiment echoed by Gloria; ‘without this virtual framework, we’d likely never have been able to connect’. 

After nearly a year along the Mentorship journey with Dr. Folake, Gloria sums up her experience as ‘hitting the jackpot’ and Dr. Folake is already discussing extending their mentorship journey beyond the two year program. Her reason is clear; ‘As the orchestrators of our own public health, we need to prepare the next generation of global health leaders, particularly from Africa to take on emergencies, deal with global stakeholders, and provide solutions to emerging problems. Africa has stepped up in a big way during this pandemic, but we need to prepare for the next. I want to see Gloria doing much more of that in her lifetime. And I want to be part of that journey.’