There are several different types of mentoring. In one example, a college student’s special qualities or abilities may attract the interest of someone teaching or counseling in the college. The mentor may see that in spite of great potential, the student is too inexperienced in the college system to know how best to maximize that potential. In such a case, the mentor can help lead the student through the maze of choosing courses, maneuvering amongst the factions of institutional politics, and introduce him or her to others in the faculty or the community whose interest will be of benefit during school and beyond.
In most quality institutions of higher education, the ethnic background of mentor and student probably will be of little importance to either of them. This often holds true, also, in business settings (where diversity often is a part of the mission statement): A person new to a company will be grateful for the guidance of a more experienced employee (or member of management) who is willing to help her avoid pitfalls that are peculiar to that company (or industry) and also give her tips about what sort of efforts on her part are likely to result in furthering her progress within the company. A good mentor is a good mentor, and that’s what counts.
Then there is the kind of mentoring in which an adult commits to spending time with a child or teenager each week, such as the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. The program supervisors will do their very best, in this kind of situation, to make a match that will provide the youngster with the mentor who is most likely to have a positive influence on the child’s life. Here, ethnicity will be taken into consideration but the goal will not be, automatically, to have every child matched up with a mentor of the same ethnic background.
Some situations will, indeed, call for someone of the same racial or cultural origin. For instance, a child whose life experience has shown her only the worst of her ethnic group, may be matched up with a mentor who is of the same ethnicity but who has had a more positive experience and can help the child see that many people of her culture are successful, proud of their heritage, and respected both within and outside of their community. Thus, the child may develop a much better attitude about her own potential for a happy and productive life.
Another child may have grown up distrusting people who are not of his background. Matching him with someone of a different racial or cultural background, but who shares interests with the child such as sports, music, or career goals, may help break down the psychological barriers that his initial distrust had created.
Another consideration is the opinion of the child’s parent(s). It may take some persuasion to get them to see the potential benefits in a match-up with the mentor who the program directors believe can broaden the child’s horizons and develop his potential. It has been my observation, however, that most parents whose children qualify for the program, are just glad to be getting some help with keeping their child on a positive path and helping her to develop positive goals.
Perhaps more important than matters of ethnicity is the match-up as regards energy levels, ability to express enthusiasm (or lack thereof), zest for life, or perhaps a more laid-back personality, an enjoyment of things like sitting on a beach and watching the sun go down without even speaking. Some “Bigs” and “Littles” are so much on the same wave length that they can share experiences with very little verbal communication.
Mentors of children make an honorable and valuable contribution to society. They also have a big responsibility to respect the child’s personal space and his beliefs, steer strictly clear of any questionable demonstrations of physical affection or in any way making the child uncomfortable. In matters of ethnic questions, the mentor should be careful to respect the child’s origins and NEVER make value comparisons between their two differing backgrounds.
The right mentor for each child is one who accepts the child just as she is, even while choosing activities that can show her more opportunities than she had ever realized were available to her. A mentor who sees a child only as a project, a blank slate on which the mentor can write his or her own personality, will only diminish the child in her own estimation, and do more harm than good. The one who sees her as an interesting person in her own right, and wants to help her be THAT PERSON at her best, will have less stress, a lot of fun and greater overall success.