With increasing diversity in the student body, mentors face a unique challenge in navigating cultural differences. Anyone in a graduate program knows the importance of their advisor in making or breaking their academic career. Cultural differences—whether they relate to nationality, race, or gender—impact the quality of the relationship between mentor and mentee. In one study, researchers found that in cross-gender mentoring relationships, gender similarity between the mentor and protégé was associated with greater interpersonal comfort (Allen et al., 2005). Interpersonal comfort, in turn, can potentially influence how much someone learns from their mentor. What are the barriers that mentors and mentees face when they come from culturally different backgrounds and what can mentors do about it?
The mentor is generally expected to use their expertise to foster the academic and professional growth of the less experienced graduate student. If this is a harmonious relationship, it can lead to positive experiences for both mentor and protégé. However, mentors with a cultural background that is different from their protégé might face barriers. It is possible that mentors might misinterpret their students’ behaviors because of cultural differences. In some cultures, for example, it might be commonplace to agree with someone in authority while in others, like the US, the power gap is not so wide, and mentors might instead expect students to question them or express disagreement. When a student who comes from a culture where hierarchical relationships are maintained between mentors and protégés and they do not easily communicate disagreement, the mentor might perceive such behavior as meaning that the student does not critically evaluate other people’s opinions or doesn’t have adequate knowledge about the topic being discussed. In cross-racial mentor-mentee relationships, minority students might find it difficult to engage in role modeling, feel isolated, or might believe that they are not privy to unwritten rules for success in graduate school and beyond. Such miscommunication because of cultural differences can hamper the mentor-protégé relationship.
Here's what we recommend:
1. Acknowledge that racial and cultural differences exist: Mentors must try to recognize that their students are working within a larger social context. By acknowledging that cultural differences can shape people’s behaviors and experiences in graduate school, they can be more mindful about differences in communication styles and ways in which people solve problems in everyday life. Acknowledging racial and cultural differences can leave room for open and direct conversations about how your graduate student’s cultural identity is shaping their experiences and impacting their academic career. Further, by re-evaluating one’s own prejudices, stereotypes, and biases, mentors can pave the path for a mutually beneficial relationship.
2. Find out more about your protégé: When mentors make themselves accessible and care for their students (while also maintaining some boundaries), they can make their students feel comfortable and willing to reach out for support, when needed. Finding out more about what your protégé wants to accomplish professionally, their strengths and weaknesses, and their ethnic and cultural identity can help the advisor provide targeted professional and social support. For example, international students are not usually eligible for federal grants and by knowing more about restrictions and opportunities for international students, advisors can anticipate potential hurdles and formulate strategies to ensure that their grad student doesn’t face major financial difficulties or stress.
3. Provide additional support or resources, if needed: Mentors can advocate for their students in small, but meaningful ways. For example, by connecting the student with another faculty member with similar professional or extracurricular interests, the mentor can make the student feel less isolated. By taking the time to understand additional challenges that international students might face (such as stress regarding their visas and transitioning from graduate school to the workforce), the mentor and protégé can harmoniously work toward achieving the same goal.
Of course, people are multifaceted and someone’s identity is not the only factor that determines their relationship with their mentor/mentee. However, recognizing that people’s behaviors are heavily influenced by their social context and cultural background can make it easier to navigate through any differences that come up during regular interactions with your mentor/grad student. When cultural differences are considered and small but important steps are taken towards reducing communication or other gaps, the advisor and student can work in tandem to achieve their professional and academic goals.
Here are some additional resources for better insight into how cultural differences shape advisor-grad student experiences and strategies for working together successfully despite these differences:
- Western Guide to Mentoring Graduate Students Across Cultures
- Cengage: 4 Tips for Mentoring Minority Students
- Mentoring Across Cultures
- Twelve Tips for Developing Effective Mentors
- On Mentoring First Generation and Graduate Students of Color
- Mentoring social and personality psychology graduate students and early career faculty
- Guramatunhu-Mudiwa & Angel (2017): Women mentoring in the academe: a faculty crossracial and cross-cultural experience
- Brown & Grothaus (2019): Experiences of Cross-Racial Trust in Mentoring Relationships Between Black Doctoral Counseling Students and White Counselor Educators and Supervisors
- Reddick (2009): Fostering Cross-Racial Mentoring: White Faculty and African American Students at Harvard College
- Ku et al. (2008): Into the Academy: Preparing and Mentoring International Doctoral Students