Volume 48 Number 4 
Fall 2015

Student Issues

Edited by Sarah Callahan and Meagan Sweeney  (

Culturally Sensitive Mentoring: Reflections from a SCRA Roundtable

By Irene Daboin, Allana Zuckerman, Dominique Thomas, and Robyn Borgman (Georgia State University)

Mentoring Graduate Students

Mentoring is a fundamental responsibility for most faculty members at research and training universities. As community psychologists, we pride ourselves in promoting the creation and implementation of evidence-based practices, but little is said about what best practices in graduate student mentoring look like. For example, there are no mentoring guidelines on our division’s website. Moreover, even less is said concerning mentoring graduate students from diverse backgrounds. Unfortunately, a broad search of the literature on mentoring reveals that there are well over 50 definitions of mentoring across academia (Crisp & Cruz, 2009). One article by Berk and colleagues (2005) provides a well-constructed definition of graduate mentoring that includes a focus on the professional development of the mentee. While this may be a solid foundation on which to build, previous work has demonstrated that graduate students of color and international students often find themselves with additional needs that go beyond their development as a scholar. For example, findings from the evaluation of a mentoring program specifically for graduate students reveal that the combination of both professional and socio-emotional support was viewed as extremely necessary, especially for students of color (Waitzkin, Yager, Parker & Duran, 2006).

Mentoring Students of Color

Maton and colleagues (2011) found that students of color reported more challenges (both academic and non-academic) related to their ethnicity as well as less meaningful representation than their White peers. Because students of color have to navigate these additional issues, it is even more important for them to have a positive mentoring experience while in graduate school.  Two factors that play a role in the support and satisfaction that graduate students experience are surface-level similarity (mentor and mentee are of the same race or ethnicity) and deep-level similarity (mentor and mentee share similar values). Ortiz-Walters and Gilson (2005) found that graduate students of color who had mentors of color or mentors with similar values received more support and were more satisfied and comfortable. However, while the sample was all graduate students of color, a significant majority (73%) of the graduate mentors were White. Many graduate students of color do not have the opportunity to have a mentor of the same race or ethnicity, leaving them to hope that the mentor they have shares the same values.

While previous work has postulated that White professors can have meaningful and important cross-cultural mentoring relationships with students of color, there are additional obstacles that must be considered (Walker, Wright, & Hanley, 2001). An excellent article on multicultural mentoring by Schlosser and Foley (2008) discussed many of the ethical considerations that arise as a function of mentoring graduate students, particularly those who are from socially oppressed groups. Ethical issues included having multiple relationships with mentors (e.g., both inside and outside of the classroom) and recognition of how the intersection of our multiple personal identities can enhance the power differential between a professor and a graduate student. As a woman of color and a first generation college student, one of this paper’s authors, Allana Zuckerman, finds the socio-emotional aspect of mentoring extremely important because of her multiple intersecting identities. While she has been fortunate to receive some of this support during my graduate training, it is an aspect of mentoring that is oftentimes neglected.

Mentoring International Students

Culturally-sensitive mentoring is a significant challenge and, given the increasing influx of international students, is one that is becoming more and more important for our field to navigate properly. In the 2013-14 academic year alone, a total of 886,052 international students were enrolled in universities across the United States. Given this statistic, it is quite surprising (and appalling, really) how little literature our field has on the topic of mentoring international students. According to one article, the most common stressors faced by international students include: second language anxiety, performance expectations, academic system adjustment, culture shock, social isolation, financial concerns, discrimination, and prejudice (Chen, 1999). Another publication revealed that international students are most in need during their initial transition after their arrival to the U.S., and that they experience a number of critical barriers in their attempts to adjust to their new life (Poyrazli & Grahame, 2007). The authors of that study argue that institutions of higher education need to constantly evaluate the entire context into which they recruit and educate international students; it is not sufficient to focus on individual level problems. Advisors’ sensitivity to cultural issues and a willingness to learn about their student’s culture is a key element to helping these students (Poyrazli & Grahame, 2007).

In terms of mentoring international students at the graduate level, the literature gets even scarcer. One study examining a mentor-led international doctoral student support group, found that students wanted advice about teaching, conducting research, and preparing for a job, as well as more support and help learning about the local culture (Ku, Lahman, Yeh, & Cheng, 2008). Participants of that study also suggested that advisors needed to be more accessible and care about their students (Ku, Lahman, Yeh, & Cheng, 2008). 

An additional complication, and a unique potential challenge of working with international students, is the possibility of having to work with international students while they are facing a home-country crisis. The literature on this is close to non-existent. To our knowledge, there is only one, very recently published phenomenological study, on the experiences of five international students studying in the U.S. while experiencing large-scale crises in their home countries (McCovey, 2015).

Given the nature of international affairs, it is safe to assume that home-country crises are not uncommon for international students. Consider, for example, the prospect that most students come to U.S. initially motivated by the critical state of affairs back home. Another of this paper’s authors, Irene Daboin, is one of those students and was not surprised to read about how students dealing with a home-country crisis often have to find a “new normal” (McVay, 2015). While she has received a lot of support from her program and has no complaints about the mentoring she has received, experiencing a home-country crisis was a difficult personal experience for her, and one that was mostly invisible to everybody else.

Summary and Reflections from Our SCRA Roundtable

Like many other universities, Georgia State University’s students come from a diverse range of backgrounds and have a diverse range of needs. However, our mentors sometimes lack formal training on how to address our varied needs. The brief activity the authors completed during our SCRA Biennial roundtable discussion (Daboin, Zuckerman, & Thomas, 2015) revealed that students from diverse backgrounds have many overlapping needs that often go unnoticed or unmet by their faculty advisors. When asked to write down words that described “mentor” or “mentoring”, the words that participants provided the most included: “support/supportive” (financial and social-emotional) and “ facilitate networking.” Additional words included “guidance”, “understanding”, “vision (saw/believed in me when I didn’t)” and “compassion.”

As noted in the previous literature reviews, and echoed by participants’ experiences shared at the roundtable, students desire academic and career opportunities, but also socio-emotional support. Academics are notoriously bad at the latter, although it is equally as important as the former. As discussed above, students of color and international students experience additional adversity in an academic context and may also have family members experiencing hardships, locally and abroad. If faculty mentors are not provided with proper training and tools on how to handle such challenges in a culturally sensitive manner, many students will be left without the vital supports they need to thrive.

Final Recommendations

Through various discussions, we realized that many students and mentors are living in a state of confusion and discomfort due to this lack of training and lack of mutual understanding of needs and resources. We suggest that we push for having intentional conversations about mentoring within our graduate programs and continue to ask ourselves: What do we want mentoring to be in Community Psychology? What do we want it to look like for graduate students, particularly graduate students of color and international students? How do we want to consider the additional intersecting identities that we have as people and as professionals and how we can better incorporate them into our model of successful mentoring? What are some concrete ways we, as a field, can do better at ensuring that we retain students of color?


Berk, R. A., Berg, J., Mortimer, R., Walton-Moss, B., & Yeo, T. P. (2005). Measuring the effectiveness of faculty mentoring relationships. Academic Medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 80(1), 66–71.

Chen, C.P. (1999). Common stressors among international college students: Research and counseling implications. Journal of College Counseling, 2, 49-65.

Crisp, G., & Cruz, I. (2009). Mentoring college students: A critical review of the literature between 1990 and 2007. Research in Higher Education, 50(6), 525-545. doi: 10.1007/s11162-009-9130-2

Daboin, I., Zuckerman, A., & Thomas, D. (2015, June). Culturally-Sensitive Mentoring: Supporting Future  Community Psychologists of Color. Roundtable session presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Community, Research, and Action, Lowell, MA.

Ku, H., Lahman, M. E., Yeh, H., & Cheng, Y. (2008). Into the academy: Preparing and mentoring international doctoral students. Educational Technology Research and Development, 56(3), 365-377.

Maton, K. I., Wimms, H. E., Grant, S. K., Wittig, M. A., Rogers, M. R., & Vasquez, M. J. T. (2011). Experiences and perspectives of African-American, Latina/o, Asian-American and European-American psychology graduate students: A national study. Cultural and Ethnic Diversity Psychology, 17 (1), 68 – 78.

McVay, C.J. (2015). Everything changed: Experiences of international students affected by a home country crisis. Educational Administration: Theses, Dissertations, and Student Research. Paper 235.

Ortiz-Walters, R. & Gilson, L. L. (2005). Mentoring in academia: An examination of the experiences of protégés of color. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 67, 459 – 475.

Poyrazli, S., & Grahame, K. M. (2007). Barriers to adjustment: Needs of international students within a semi-urban campus community. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 34(1), 28-36

Schlosser, L. Z., & Foley, P. F. (2008). Ethical issues in multicultural student-faculty mentoring relationships in higher education. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 16(1), 63-75. doi:10.1080/13611260701801015

Waitzkin, H., Yager, J., Parker, T., & Duran, B. (2006). Mentoring Partnerships for Minority Faculty and Graduate Students in Mental Health Services Research. Academic Psychiatry, 30(3), 205-217. doi:10.1176/appi.ap.30.3.205

Walker, K. L., Wright, G., & Hanley, J. H. (2001). The professional preparation of African American graduate students: A student perspective. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 32(6), 581-584. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.32.6.581

You must be logged in to leave a reply. Login »

You must be logged in to the website in order to leave a comment.