“Behind-the-scenes” BUILD mentor Dr. Kathy Lee Sutphin retires after 25 years at UMBC

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By Sarah Hansen

Kathy Lee Sutphin, Ed.D., joined the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) as a political science student in 1992, after working as a journalist and while raising four daughters. Upon graduation, she found she loved the UMBC community so much that she didn’t want to leave—so she found a way to stay.

After 25 years of service to the UMBC community,  Sutphin retired in December 2020. She began her UMBC career as assistant to the chair of the biological sciences department, concluded as assistant dean for academic affairs and director of college initiatives in the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, and earned an MBA and Ed.D. from Frostburg University along the way.

The exceptional writing skills Sutphin developed during her journalist days were critical to securing major grants to launch programs that are now flagship initiatives at UMBC. Sutphin helped pen proposals to launch the MARC U*STAR Scholars (now U-RISE Scholars) and the STEM BUILD program at UMBC. She also coordinated a variety of undergraduate research programs, directed the NSF-funded iCubed@UMBC program, managed the curricular alignment teams with community college faculty for the STEM Transfer Student Success Initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and offered some of the first programming at UMBC specifically designed to support transfer students.

As a non-traditional transfer student herself, “I knew some of the challenges of transfers,” she said. “I wanted to see if I could make a difference.” Whether she was working with transfer students, undergraduate researchers, MARC U*STAR Scholars, or STEM BUILD, Sutphin’s steadfast desire to make a difference kept her going through challenging times and enhanced her impact.

Encouraging words  

"From the very first day, Kathy had a strong influence on the success of STEM BUILD,” Bill LaCourse, dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, shared. “Her attention to detail, ability to organize, and willingness to go above and beyond contributed to the administration of the program, but it was her deep compassion for each and every student that facilitated the true purpose of STEM BUILD. Through her quiet and steadfast mentoring, many students achieved more than they thought possible."

Sutphin lost both her parents by age 14, which has influenced her commitment to mentorship. “I’ve always appreciated any type of mentorship, or just having a conversation with people,” she shared. “I can think of people who really made a difference just by giving me a compliment—you know, just the little encouraging words.”

Now she advocates offering those same encouraging words to every STEM BUILD student. “I think that it's really important that everybody who’s working on a team, like BUILD, take the opportunity to work with the students seriously, and know that they could be the person who makes a difference,” Sutphin said. “We all come from different backgrounds, and our own experiences may be more relevant to one student than another.”  

“It takes a university” to successfully mentor a student, Sutphin said. “It doesn’t just happen at one faculty mentor’s bench.”

As someone without a science degree, Sutphin offers the students the chance to practice explaining their work to non-experts. “When I look at a research poster, I look at it from a different viewpoint,” she said. Being able to explain their projects to her “is really a talent for them to develop, because then they can explain it to the public when they are scientists, and they can explain it to their parent or grandparent to let them know what they’ve been doing.”

Building resilience

It’s especially important to offer ongoing support from all angles to students at the beginning of their journeys in STEM. In the BUILD program, “we don't know who's going to be a scientist or not,” Sutphin said. “So what we’re doing at the early undergraduate level is so important, because we’re nurturing those students who even possibly think they could do it, and making them excited about research.”

Critical feedback early in a student’s experience “can turn people away from science and make them feel like, ‘I can’t do this,’” Sutphin said. “So I think it’s important that you prepare them for that—that if they get asked hard questions, it’s a compliment, because the scientist visiting their poster thinks enough of their work to ask them a hard question instead of just passing on by. You have to help them develop a tough skin, so that they can be resilient and not take it to heart and get discouraged.”

And even if a student eventually decides not to pursue a research career, their experience as a STEM BUILD Trainee is still incredibly valuable. “We're also increasing the scientific literacy of a new group of students who will be educated and understand what research is, even if they don't go into it. It’s a win-win,” Sutphin said. “So I think the touchpoints for the students are important to help them believe they can do it, and if they have a question, they can ask it, and that we’re behind them, whatever they need.”

Lifelong commitment

Despite her years of dedication to UMBC students, “I never really considered myself a mentor,” Sutphin said. “I was sort of a behind-the-scenes mentor.” Even in retirement, though, Sutphin remains interested in supporting student success. A lifelong learner, she is currently pursuing a Post-Master’s Certificate in College Teaching and Learning Science at UMBC, with plans to teach after completing the program.

Sutphin has seen the difference that one person can make at UMBC, and wants to keep on giving. She said the UMBC environment encourages that. “I think that staff have the opportunity to really make a big impact, and a lot of people have been able to bring their own talents and creativity to their positions,”Sutphin said. “UMBC has been a place that lets everybody grow. Having that, people will pitch in and help for everybody to be successful. In all the projects I’ve worked on, so many people would offer their help or their expertise, because we’re all focused on the students.”

Sutphin stands as a true model of UMBC “grit and greatness” for her decades of heartfelt and effective work to enhance student success. She serves as an inspiration for other staff, faculty, and of course students by setting an example of hard work, skill, passion, and that often-underappreciated trait—kindness.

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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