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The Ultimate Cross-Cultural Mentoring Partnership Challenge

alesnick's picture

by Grace Kung 

"In this section of the Handbook, I will explore the inner conflict student mentors may face when working with adult learners.  This chapter offers student mentors a suggested step-by-step guide for how to handle emotional struggles arising in a cross-cultural mentoring partnership." 

Undergraduate students who are placed to serve in education-related praxis often hold the most experience of working with students younger than they.  Whether these experiences come from earning extra pocket money by babysitting a neighbor's child, or adding onto an impressive resume by joining a tutoring program for a local high school, students are most accustomed to the set-up of an older student paired up with a younger student.  This familiar system of reaching out to those younger is usually perceived as a one-way street in which the younger student gains most, if not all, of the benefits from the relationship.  Such a relationship becomes hierarchal with the older student superior and the younger student inferior.  For undergraduate students used to such a position of superiority, it is a challenge to step down from that mentality in a mentoring partnership. 

Mentoring is made up of several key components.  These include "dialogue, caring, authenticity, emotion, passion, and identity" (Celebrating 2).  The relationship of a mentor and mentee is between "a more knowledgeable and experienced individual and a less experienced individual" (Celebrating 2).  It is a partnership in which the relationship, in every aspect, is reciprocal.  A mentoring partnership provides two individuals an opportunity to step out beyond their past experiences to exchange with and learn from one another.  Through this, a mentor and mentee gain mutual understanding and respect.

In this section of the Handbook, I will explore the inner conflict student mentors may face when working with adult learners.  This chapter offers student mentors a suggested step-by-step guide for how to handle emotional struggles arising in a cross-cultural mentoring partnership.  These struggles center on how student mentors perceive the differences between student and staff formal educational attainment.  The context for this is the Teaching & Learning Initiative (TLI) staff student education program in which I served as a Computing II student mentor.   As a Computing II student mentor, I worked in partnership with a member of staff on campus.  Throughout my experience as a participant in the TLI, I was forced to confront issues of age, gender, education and economical differences between my partner and me.   The story I am going to share does not have the goal of being "politically correct", but rather, has the goal of exploring good mentoring.  I draw from my own experiences with hopes that I can provide insight to other mentors who may be traveling down a similar path as mine.

The Beginning

Meet Jack*.  Jack is in his mid-40s.  He has lived in Philadelphia his whole life.  Jack did not attend college.  He is currently employed at Bryn Mawr College as a project and relief utility housekeeper.  Some of Jack's interests include going to the movies with his wife, watching football on Sundays and drinking beer with his friends at the bar.  Jack works two job shifts.  The first shift forces him to have an abnormal sleeping schedule of waking up at 3AM and getting off of work at 2PM.  After Jack gets off work, he goes straight to pick up his wife at Drexel University, where she is taking classes trying to earn her first higher education degree.  The second shift barely leaves Jack a weekend to relax as he leaves for work at 6AM and returns home at 2PM.

At the beginning, I was apprehensive about the semester ahead.    I only had three things running in my mind about my partner: he was male, he was significantly older than me, and he worked in housekeeping.  I was clueless as to how, or rather where, I would begin to form any sort of relationship with Jack at all.  The thought of how our partnership was set up immediately made me uncomfortable as it was obvious our educational and economic backgrounds differed.

Having mainly worked with elementary school students, I was accustomed to always being "in charge".  With children, I believe I deserve respect simply because I am older and much more experienced.  So, to come into my placement where I was to mentor Jack, I questioned where to draw the line between my role as a student and my role as a mentor.  As my partner was much older than myself, I naturally associated my partner's greater age with maturity that would deserve my respect.  Besides our age difference, our differences in occupation also called for me to show my partner respect.  Towards any working staff on campus, I had always tried to offer an attitude of gratitude for all they do.  But then, the mentor role made me responsible for sharing my knowledge and skills in the use of computers.  Throughout our first one-on-one meeting times, I found this dilemma to be increasingly problematic for myself.  I was challenged with how to combine the roles of both a student and a mentor.  I felt disrespectful as a student to correct my partner, yet at the same time, I strangely felt empowering for challenging my partner with new knowledge.

During one of our very first meetings, I realized where the seed of all my uneasiness originated.  There was a moment in this particular meeting where, for time's sake, my partner and I agreed for me to do the typing as we had planned to cover a lot during that session.  I unconsciously typed as fast as I could to get the typing over with, but I became extremely conscious of my fast pace.  My partner stared in amazement as my fingers flew over the keyboard and exclaimed, "Wow, you type really fast!"  I had always noted my partner's weak typing skills and it was always something he expressed he wanted to improve on, but not until that moment did I realize my typing would pose a standard of comparison for his typing.  I sensed a tone of embarrassment in his voice, and feeling guilty for triggering such discomfort, I immediately tried typing as slowly as I could.  I began to pity my partner for growing up in a totally different generation.  But above all, I felt ashamed for typing as fast as I did because causing my partner to feel incompetent was certainly not my intention.  It eventually came to the point that I began to resent all the abilities I had accumulated since grade school that my partner did not have.  In particular, this incident made me more aware of the differences between my partner and me.  I experienced constant inner turmoil about how our partnership was set up.  What was it exactly that made me so uncomfortable to fulfill the role of a student mentor to an adult mentee?  Why couldn't I allow myself to assume both the positions of a student and of a mentor?


I came to recognize that my guilt and resentment grew from the fact that I held certain privileges over my partner.  The concept of holding a privilege over another individual is "often outside of the awareness of the person possessing [the privilege]" (Expanding 245, 246).  My computing abilities were skills I had began acquiring since I was young.  My generation was practically born with a computer, keyboard and mouse in our hands.   Not until my experience with Jack did I identify my extensive history of computer usage as a privilege I had, and one that gave me an advantage in mastering a high status skill.  This privilege was, to a certain extent, a "special advantage" that was "not earned", but rather was "granted" to me (Expanding 246).

The recognition of both my feelings of guilt and my privileges aided me in understanding the cross-cultural mentoring relationship I had entered into with Jack.  A cross-cultural mentoring relationship can be defined as "an affiliation between unequals who are conducting their relationship ... with a societal script contrived to undermine the success of the partnership" (Cross-Cultural 18).  As I slowly defined the type of partnership I had with Jack, I gradually made it my goal to challenge our "differing locations in societal hierarchies of race and gender" (Diversified 482).  Despite the societal norms and pressures that condition me to expect to carry on as a student separate from working staff on campus, I began to see the divisions between different campus groups.  A wall my relationship with my partner could help break down. 


            It was one step to first recognize what composed the boundary between Jack and me, but it was another step to accept it.  Acceptance, after acknowledgement, ultimately allows an individual to come to terms with the discomfort of one's position in a social hierarchy.  In order to accept this realization, I sought out the support of my peers in both the TLI and my Empowering Learners class.  Since most of these peers had similar placements as mine, a lot of them identified with the inner conflict I was facing.  I found great comfort in their reception of what I had to say because their recognition and understanding legitimized my thoughts.  Learning to accept the challenges that came with cross-cultural mentoring was the most burdensome, yet most liberating part of busting some of the barriers between jack and me.  Acceptance is an ongoing recursive process that I believe every mentor needs to carry into each step taken with their mentee. 


"Mentoring is also about recognizing that it can exist in two different forms - formal and informal."  (Celebrating 3)  While my placement with Jack was "formal" because it was planned and set to operate in an intentional manner, our time together was the very definition of informal mentoring.  Every aspect of our journey together was unexpected and unplanned.  With that said, taking advantage of the informality of our partnership, Jack and I gradually told each other more about ourselves.  We would laugh and reminisce over childhood stories together.  We would share casual exchanges of his married life and my college life.  These exchanges transformed our differences in life experience into a common middle ground for us to stand on together.  And so, the missing links between us were now filled.  Confronting our differences helped us gain similarities, and created "an environment where trust would likely to grow" (The Journey 7).


            Trust is an extremely important foundation for building any strong relationship.  Establishing trust in a cross-cultural mentoring partnership is even more key because of how is framed by race and culture.  Because trust is such a big part of the confidence an individual places in another, it certainly takes time.  And so, it is necessary to be patient while a mentoring relationship matures with time. 

While I understand these ideas in theory, it was a struggle for me to put them into practice.  For those who are like me and find security in knowing the status of all things, when cultivating a unique relationship between a student mentor and adult mentee, it is challenging not to become restless.  It important for mentors to constantly remind themselves that trust is not tangible in their relationship with their mentee.  There is no scheduled check-in point where both parties are forced to express "how much" trust they have for each other.  And so, trust is not easily measurable.

To gage the trust level of our interaction, I observed that giving Jack the power to discover different options and to make his own decisions imbues him with the feeling of competence.  For example, although our class syllabus appears to be rigid with set homework assignments and set class plans, it can actually be molded to fit each student's range of interests and comfort levels.  This promotes self-confidence within the student, as there is a stronger sense of control over how and what is being taught in class.  Consequently, the faith I show in my partner makes room for him to trust me.

Looking Onwards

The experience I gained in participating in the TLI program opened my eyes to a broader sense of my identity and its impact of my interactions with people of another culture.  The inner struggles I faced in my partnership with Jack may well arise for most students participating in the TLI program.  As acknowledged in the introduction of this chapter, undergraduates serving in placements have very little to no experience of being paired with an older individual.  And so, it is expected that a student who assumes the role as a mentor in the TLI will initially feel awkward.  Through my experience mentoring Jack, I have found that the most detrimental approach to handling such a challenge is to ignore the awkwardness of the situation.  In the beginning of my time with Jack I tried to look past the differences that set us apart.  I remember thinking if I were able to put aside what caused my inner turmoil then it would not exist.  But against my desperate hopes, the issues of feeling more privileged than my partner resurfaced and actually became a hindrance to the growth our relationship.  Every time we met, our partnership felt inauthentic and unproductive.  There was no relationship at all as I showed up to our one-on-one sessions merely to teach whatever computer skill had to be taught and help complete whatever homework assignment needed to be completed.

            "[T]he first step in getting beyond the barriers and boundaries of race [and culture] is not to pretend that they do not exist" (Cross-Cultural 24).  One of the small group discussions in my Empowering Learners class drove me to a mental breakthrough.  My partner and I could not possibly move forward if I were not allowing myself to move forward.  While my partner was present during our sessions and fully gave of himself to our partnership, I, on the other hand, was unwilling to allow myself to step out of my comfort zone and be vulnerable.  I was so concerned with feeling secure and "in charge" as a mentor that I would not expose myself to new grounds, therefore endangering my partnership.  Instead of looking past my partner and my differences, I changed my mentality such that I started looking at our differences.  I set myself a goal to "see [Jack] as an individual and not a category or representative of the larger [staff] society" (Cross-Cultural 23).

Fast forward to what is going to be my last week with Jack.  A couple awkward silences have been endured, more life stories have been exchanged, and countless projects have been completed.  How a relationship has evolved, or how a mentor and mentee have grown closer together, is difficult to articulate.  The best way to illustrate the growth in my partnership with Jack is to describe the specific breakthroughs we shared.

Our first breakthrough involved me attempting to demonstrate step-by-step how to create a calendar event on our email server, something that I myself had never done.  Without my knowing, as I fumbled to figure out the process, Jack was following me on his own email account.  I realized with dismay that I was not correctly showing him how to create the event.  Out of embarrassment, I chuckled then apologized to Jack, admitting to him that it was also my first time to create a calendar event.  He was in disbelief that I had never completed scheduling a calendar event, but then thoughtfully reminded me neither had he.  I then pointed out that we would be learning a lot together through trial and error throughout the semester, so we should only anticipate moments like this one more often.  I could tell Jack was beginning to find our time together more in his comfort zone after I admitted to not knowing how to do everything that was listed on the syllabus.  This incident also gave way for Jack to further define his role as a mentee in our trial and error episodes.  During such times, I would easily become flustered or impatient if we were not successful in our second or third try.  Jack, on the other hand, would stay composed and gently encourage me to take my time.  And so, Jack learned that nobody is perfect, and certainly that I was not perfect, and that it is okay to make mistakes, to learn from them then move on.  I, after, came to a realization that I, too, come away from this episode with a similar lesson of recognizing that even though I am the mentor in the partnership, I may not always have the learned skills needed to complete assignments in the computing class and I need to accept that.  I really cherish this moment of learning because it exemplified how the partnership was reciprocal.

            The partnership afforded me an additional opportunity to experience the reciprocity of our relationship.  At our very first meeting, Jack had immediately identified his two greatest weaknesses at using the computer as typing and spelling.  Every week we would spend part of our one-on-one time on a typing website where Jack would usually seek out typing games to play.  While enjoyable and familiar to Jack, these games did not help him locate the keys on the keyboard.  So, I proposed to him that we would split his typing practice time between the games he really enjoyed and the lessons the website offered that would really help him become accustomed to using the home row keys.  While we both found the combination of the two activities well-suited for the purpose of familiarizing his fingers to the keyboard, spelling was still a challenge for Jack.  It was during our third-to-last meeting when Jack created a solution for himself.  While we were individually working on a PowerPoint presentation about ourselves for the TLI's Final Celebration, I heard Jack stop typing for awhile, and, curious as to what he was doing instead, I turned to look at him only to find him writing words out in his notebook.  Jack noticed me looking over and he kind of blushed.  He explained to me that he found it helpful to write out a difficult first before typing it into the presentation.  I was overwhelmed by amazement how Jack had discovered his own way to help himself face the difficulty he had in spelling.  An indescribable sense of pride and joy for Jack's breakthrough soared inside of me.  This was the moment we had both been working for.  I praised Jack for finding a method that worked best for him and commented that I would have never thought of it.  I could tell that Jack, too, was thrilled during this glorious moment.  After our session was over, I could not stop thinking about how beautifully our partnership had worked out.  We truly emerged from, what seemed at the time, a forced and awkward pair to partners who had developed mutual respect.  Where I lacked, Jack picked up and pushed me, and likewise, where Jack struggled, I provided ways for him to move forward.

      In conclusion, through the progress of and the observations on my field work, I recommend the following approach to overcoming the challenges in a cross-cultural mentoring partnership:

  • 1. Recognize your feelings. Acknowledgement of any inner conflict will allow you to explore the roots of the challenge.
  • 2. Accept your insights of the sources of the struggle.
  • 3. Confront and embrace the gaps in the partnership by surfacing some commonality.
  • 4. Allow time to develop a relationship based on mutual trust between your mentee and you.


Works Cited

Cohen, Norman H.. "The Journey of the Principles of Adult Mentoring Inventory." Mentoring

Adult Learners  4-12. 12 Apr 2009.

Galbraith, Michael W.. "Celebrating Mentoring." Mentoring Adult Learners 2-3. 11 Apr 2009.

Juanita Johnson-Bailey, Ronald M. Cervero. "Cross-Cultural Mentoring as a Context for

Learning." New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 96 2002 15-26. 12 Apr 2009.

Linda L. Black, David Stone. "Expanding the Definition of Privilege: The Concept of Social

Privilege." Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development 33 10 2005 243-255.

11 Apr 2009.

Ragins, Belle Rose. "Diversified Mentoring Relationships in Organizations: A Power

Perspective." The Academy of Management Review 22.2 April 1997 482-521. 11 Apr 2009.

*Name has been changed to protect the confidentiality of the individual involved.


Hope Wayman's picture


"I sensed a tone of embarrassment in his voice, and feeling guilty for triggering such discomfort, I immediately tried typing as slowly as I could. I began to pity my partner for growing up in a totally different generation." I found this small snapshot of the interaction between the mentor and the older mentee extremely fascinating. Before reading this article, I had heard of TLI but never really thought about the concept or how such a relationship would play out. It makes sense that it would initially be very awkward, since both parties have to feel out their role in the partnership. The extreme level of guilt felt by the mentor, however, is really what gets to me. It's not her fault that she was born in a different generation, to a different family, in a different social class. She eventually realizes this, and works through it with her four step process. But what I'm wondering is whether it is "normal" to feel that kind of guilt? If put in a similar situation would I feel the same way? Did the mentee have a similar reaction--feeling bad for himself?