As part of participating in the Cross-Cultural Mentoring Program, I had the opportunity to mentor a graduate student from South Korea. Over time, we have become good friends, and whenever we see each other, I am able to check in with her on various challenges that she is struggling to overcome in her transition to the U.S.
At first, talking with this student was quite difficult. Her accent was strong, and I needed to listen carefully to grab a hold of her meanings. This language barrier was one of her primary challenges in her academic program. She would need to pass an oral exam, and her committee informed her that she would not be able to pass unless she improved her English. So, this was one of our goals for our meetings; we met to talk so that she could practice. She revealed to me that most of her friends at OSU were Korean, and they spoke Korean together. She watched Korean television and movies on her laptop. Only when she was in the classroom was she engaged extensively with English and English speakers. She also told me that she longed for home; she missed her family, and she would not see them for a year or more because of the costs associated with traveling. We brainstormed ways that she could make friends with more English speakers, so that she would be more social and practicing English at the same time.
Over time, her English improved, although not as quickly as she would have liked. She told me about her advisor, who was also a South Korean woman, and she admired the professor’s fluency and ease in the U.S. My mentee thought she might never achieve that level of ease. She was down about it for quite a while; she seemed depressed and concerned that she might not pass her oral exams. If she didn’t pass, she said, she would return to Seoul and go back to her old job in the fashion industry. I tried to get her to try some English conversation groups and Counseling and Psychological Services.
The last time I saw her, she seemed to be doing quite well. She had moved into her own place (earlier she’d been subletting a room in a family home), and her schedule was her own. She was working on her dissertation, no longer taking courses, and talking to her advisor regularly. She seemed lighter and brighter about the progress she’d made and optimistic about her prospects for her oral exams. By this time, more than a year had passed since we first met, and we’d become friends. She had introduced me to her cultural foods and practices, and I had introduced her to mine. We’d shared hikes and coffees and meals and walks together. Across culture, we’d learned about one another in relationship, and we’d educated each other about ourselves and the ways we each viewed the world.
I saw my mentee as a holistic student: her identity influencing her academics influencing her development influencing her success. I learned about all those aspects of her and helped her problem solve and strategize when things didn’t seem to be progressing the way she wanted them to. However, this was not an advising relationship, but a mentoring one, so my ultimate goal was simply to be a support, not offer advice. I incorporated my knowledge of systems of privilege and oppression, as she often was confronting racist attitudes and misunderstandings from fellow students, with my knowledge of the institution and the systems she was navigating as an international student at OSU. I researched programs and resources for her to practice her English and meet domestic students who would be open to those conversations, as many of the domestic students she encountered in her courses were not friendly toward her. I acted as a support and tool for her to practice her English, and I made a deal with her that I would let her know when she mispronounced a particular word. Her whole life was concentrated on being at OSU to complete this doctorate, and she often seemed unsure whether she’d made the right choice. But her goals were clear, and I wish the best for her in the coming year or two as she nears the end of her program and the next steps.