I went to pursue my graduate studies at the University of Hawaii in 2008. Since I was in a new academic environment, any academic help extended to me would be tremendously helpful. I first had little idea on how the US academic system would work, for example, choosing academic advisers, completing assignments, presenting at conferences, finding and using scholarly resources and connecting to the local ELT professional venues. Thanks to the East-West Center, my scholarship sponsor organization, that connected me to an experienced and very helpful mentor, Elaina. Also thanks to the Second Language Studies Students’ Association that provided me an opportunity to work as a mentor for a BA student. In the following sections, I will briefly describe my experience and learning opportunities from these mentoring programs.
Being a Mentee
The East-West Center Alumni Association asked me to fill out a mentoring form providing details of my academic and professional background, academic interest and my expectations from my mentor. However, I had little idea regarding how this would work and help with my graduate studies at the university. I thought at least I would have an opportunity to connect to an ‘American’ professor. The alumni association also asked the potential mentors to fill out similar forms. By matching common interests between the two parties, I was assigned to a mentor at a local community college. I was excited. I wrote my mentor an introductory email and told her that I was her mentee and wanted to know who she was. Elaina took me to an Indian restaurant for dinner for our first meeting. We chatted about our personal and academic interests, family background and future goals. This mentoring experience has benefited me in several ways. The first and primary goal was to get help from my mentor for my academic matters. I used to have several questions regarding assignments, courses, professors, grading, conferences and publications. On several occasions, I asked her to interpret some of my assignments. Let me recall one task that was challenging to me in my first semester. I was toward the end of my first semester. I was preparing for an interview for a teaching assistant position at my department. It is a common practice in the US universities to ask one’s own teaching philosophy for hires and promotions. I did not know what the heck the teaching philosophy was. So, I asked Elaina to send me some samples of teaching philosophy. At that time, Elaina was training Korean English teachers through a series of summer workshops. She told me that as part of her assignment, she asked the participating teachers to prepare a brief teaching philosophy. Going through these samples, I then learned that teaching philosophy was an articulation of my ideas regarding how I view my teaching profession, teaching methodology and strategies, student learning, and student evaluation. I wrote my teaching philosophy in order to present it to my interview committee although I did not submit it to them in a written form. Our communication took place mostly through emails. I would often update her about my academic matters in general, such as how my study was going, what semester projects I was writing and what conferences I was going to. Our relationship was not mono-directional, that is, only mentor providing help and mentee receiving the help. There were ample occasions when the mentor asked for my collaboration so that she could learn something from me. One day, she wrote to me that she wanted to have me as a visiting teacher in her content-integrated language class. She had a chapter on Nepal. Here is one chain of communication between two of us.
Dear Elaina, I think we have had a kind of gap in our communication. I was rather busy with my mid term papers. I submitted them last Wed. and now am feeling a bit relaxed and relieved. Yesterday, I sent the visa documents for Gita (my wife). But it is not always sure that spouses get visa from Nepal. She hopes to arrive in mid Dec. if everything is fine. I think my interview for GAship was good, but they have not called me. Perhaps there were better candidates from the second year. Yes, please let me know when I can talk about natural calamities and disasters in Nepal to your students. I think I can manage my time. Hope to see you in the future.
I’ve been thinking about you too. Like you, I’ve been incredibly busy. Right now I’m reading a lot of student research papers, and preparing for my administrative duties as students begin to register for next semester. My class meets from 9:20-11:25 Tuesday-Friday. Would you like to visit us the week of November 18-21? Time is flying! After the Thanksgiving holiday we will only have one and a half weeks of classes! During that time the students will be giving speeches and doing a lot of final writing samples and exams, so before Thanksgiving would be a better time for you to see more normal classroom activities. Aloha, Elaina.
You don’t need to prepare too much for Tuesday. Our content theme is “local, national and global environmental issues.” The students have read a little about the deforestation and soil erosion problems in hillside areas of Nepal, and how the soil in those areas lost the nutrients needed for farming. They will probably want to ask you about the situation now. Is the deforestation/soil erosion better? stablized? getting worse? Why? Have Nepalis found more sustainable methods of farming or economic development? Do they still have food shortage problems? What is the basis of Nepal’s economy now? Does Nepal have a strategy for sustainable economic growth? What government policies or actions are being done to protect the natural environment in Nepal these days? If you want to bring pictures or things to show, I’m sure they’d find them very interesting, but it’s not necessary if you don’t have such things readily available. You don’t need to spend time or go to any special trouble. After all, I’m supposed to be helping YOU, not the other way around. I’ll ask each student to prepare a few questions about Nepal’s economy, population and/or environmental issues. They can also prepare more general questions if they are interested in something else. They will only ask you one question each. If you don’t know the answer, that’s ok. It’s good for them to find out what is commonly known, and what everyday people don’t know. For example, if somebody asked me the population of Hawaii, I would have no idea! On the other hand, I do have some personal knowledge of the environmental issues and economic problems that Hawaii is facing now. I’ll try to keep the question/answer period to about 15 minutes. If there’s something you’d like to tell them about Nepal, that doesn’t come up in their questions, I can leave a little time for you to share that with them. For the rest of the class period, you can just observe our activities, or join the students and experience the activities from their point of view. I mentioned today that we would have a special guest on Tuesday, so they know you’re coming, and their eyes got very bright and curious. I think they are looking forward to your visit very much.
Our mentoring experience was not limited to academic and professional help only. There were several occasions we took part in social activities. Such activities included dinners, hikes, swims and snorkels, and involvement in cultural programs. There were several occasions when Elaina joined me and my wife in preparing momos and parothas, in participating in Teej songs and dances and in cheering up while we performed for the East-West Cultural Fest. These social events are occasions that provided us opportunities to know each other better in terms our interests and family business. Mentor-mentee relationship turned into a close friendship, from a hierarchical relationship to a more egalitarian and informal one.
Being a Mentor
I also worked as a mentor for an undergraduate student. We did not meet frequently. However, during our limited meetings, she would often ask questions about her course choices and study abroad opportunities. On one occasion, she asked me about her travel plans. Below is one correspondence between her and me:
How are you doing? I am currently teaching in South Korea, but for my winter break I would like to visit India. I really want to visit Nepal, but my neighbor said that Goa is better. Since you are from there, I thought I would ask you. Where do you suggest I visit or what should I absolutely see before leaving India. I think we will gofor two weeks from January 20 to 31. Also, what should I be aware of? My neighbor asked me to ask how safe is India or what parts should we avoid if any. Any help at all is appreciated!
Glad to know that you are working in South Korea. Culturally both countries look similar. To me (when I read news from newspapers), Nepal seems to be safer. However, if you just avoid walking at nights and avoid walking alone, I think you are also safe in India. Just make sure that you carry your wallet, camera and other important items with care and safety. I think I would first visit Taj and Goa. However, if you have more time this time or next time, I strongly recommend you visit Nepal as well. I have talked to tourists who have visited Nepal, and they have absolutely loved it. Have a good trip.
In a mentor-mentee relationship, it is usually the mentee who initiates conversations and collaboration. Mentors mostly expect that mentees ask for advice and suggestions. Even if the mentor cannot help or respond to her mentee’s questions, she may take time to explore and learn about that and convey it later to the mentee.
A successful mentor-mentee relationship continues throughout life. Even if you do not seek a professional or academic assistance all the time, you can still enjoy the company. You can make your mentor or mentee a close friend, make travel plans, and enjoy parties. You can co-author publications and co-present at conferences. You can seek advice on applying to foreign universities, seeking appropriate graduate programs, finding scholarships, applying for jobs and Preparing for exams such as TOEFL and GRE.