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January is National Mentoring Month in the United States. As a College Bound mentor to three high school students in the District of Columbia, I experienced first-hand the power and impact of mentoring programs on their participants. Over four years, I saw my students mature and gain confidence as they learned the basic skills needed to prepare for, apply to and attend college—and I matured and grew as well, learning things about myself I never would have known had I not been their mentor. My proficiencies in the competencies of Global & Cultural Effectiveness and Communication were particularly affected.
The cultural, socio-economic and educational backgrounds of my students were unfamiliar to me and unlike my own. I am white and grew up in a small, almost rural community in the Midwest, in a middle-class family. I lived with both of my parents, and I had many older siblings, each of whom had at least some college education, if not an advanced degree. The students I mentored were black and grew up in a large city on the East coast, in disadvantaged circumstances. None of them lived seven days a week with both parents, and only one had an older sibling who attended college. I was fortunate to have had the family support, adult guidance and financial resources to make the transition from high school to college easy. I worked hard but it was just a small hill to climb. My students would have to climb up mountains. And they were nearly 30 years younger than me. They lived, thought and behaved differently from me, and had different perspectives on the world.
To mentor these students and work toward our common goal—getting them into a good college—I needed to look beyond our differences and become familiar with them as individuals. I learned what kind of music they listened to, what hobbies they enjoyed, which politicians they admired, what they wanted to be when they grew up. I ended up learning that we were a lot more alike than different. This happened because I discovered how to communicate with them.
Communicating meant helping my students (and myself) get over some of their fears (and my own) about opening up and sharing. It meant translating academic subjects they needed to know, but struggled to comprehend, in a way that made them less afraid and more engaged. I had to figure out how to balance talking to them in their own language—not that of a psychologist and researcher—while still coming across as an adult they could trust to provide them with support and knowledge.
The lessons relating to Communication, Global & Cultural Effectiveness, and other competencies that I learned as a mentor have translated into my work in HR. I have been able to make better connections with people from cultural backgrounds different from my own. I have been able to communicate with others in a way that balances what they need to know with what they can comprehend. This has helped me forge critical relationships with stakeholders and more effectively transfer my expertise to business challenges.
Consider becoming a mentor all year long, not just during National Mentoring Month. Mentor a youth. Mentor a less experienced HR professional. Mentor someone who, at first, may seem different from you. Not only will you learn new ways to connect, you will learn that we are all more similar than we are different.
Joe Jones, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is director of HR competencies and resources research at SHRM.
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