How to: Mentoring Students in/from Non-Western Cultures

April 18, 2022

by Larry Caldwell, Chief Academic Officer, Kairos University and Greg Henson, CEO, Kairos University 

Kairos is becoming increasingly global, currently reaching 60 or more different countries. At the same time, our North American student body is increasingly coming from multi-cultural or diasporic contexts.

So how does all of this affect the role of being a mentor? The answers to this question are complex. They depend, in part, on whether we are mentoring students who are living and ministering in non-Western cultural contexts (i.e., They are non-Western students living and ministering in non-Western contexts) or mentoring students who have more recently arrived in North America from non-Western contexts (i.e., They are from non-Western contexts and living in North America). And, increasingly, we have mentor teams wherein both mentors and students are living and ministering in non-Western cultural contexts.

The growing globalization of Kairos has many positive effects, both on us as mentors as well as on the entire Kairos movement. At the very least our increased globalization helps us mentors grow in our awareness and understanding of other cultures through our interactions in the lives of our non-Western students. At the same time, such cross-cultural and multi-cultural diversity has invited us who mentor to perhaps think differently than we are used to doing. There are at least four general areas where such invitations occur: 1) mentor/student roles and expectations; 2) individualistic cultures vs. collectivist cultures; 3) culturally appropriate assignments and assessments; and 4) plagiarism and honor. Over the next four weeks, we will look at each of these four challenges in more detail. We begin this week by examining the first challenge: mentor/student roles and expectations.

If you are reading this series as a North American or as someone who received a degree from a Western context, it may be tempting to read the differences outlined below and to then view one approach (most likely the Western one) as more “valid” or “better” learning. As you will see throughout this series, we will invite you to set aside those assumptions. Cultural approaches to education have been shaped and formed by the values and practices of a particular culture over hundreds of years. The reality is that every approach has strengths and weaknesses. We are all fallen humans. Our goal in this series is not to highlight anything as better than the other but rather to highlight the ways in which different cultures approach the task of education and learning. It is important to understand these differences so that we can best serve our students as mentors.

Invitation #1: Mentor/Student Roles and Expectations

In the North American context, it is common to use less formalized and structured teacher/student roles. In some cases, teachers may be dismissive of their credentials to better relate with their students; teachers are seldom called “sir” or “ma’am,” or “professor” in public and in private. For students, being on a “first name” basis with one’s instructor is often preferred; camaraderie and collegiality are encouraged in the classroom. While they expect assignments to be given, students in North America seldom expect their teachers to tell them exactly what to do in a course. Rote memory by students is usually not the standard learning expectation of North American teachers.

Such is not necessarily the case outside of North America. In many, if not most, non-Western contexts that are not trying to copy the Western academic model there tend to be strict teacher/student roles, where the teacher is seen as the authority figure and, as such, is given high respect by the students. If a student refers to their teacher by their first name, it would most likely be seen as very disrespectful which means it is never done; camaraderie is rarely the goal. Teachers usually tell the students exactly what they expect the students to do, and rote memory by the students of everything the teacher says tends to be the assumed practice. Teachers have much power over the lives of their students and can impact their futures both positively and negatively.

So How Do We Mentor?

If you substitute “mentor” for “teacher” in the above paragraphs, you can see some of the complexities involved in mentoring cross-culturally and multi-culturally. Kairos is an entirely new way of doing theological education. As such, it’s oftentimes difficult for North American students to catch the Kairos difference at first. There is a steep learning curve for both students and mentors as we begin working together.

For most of our non-Western students, this learning curve tends to be exponentially steeper. As a result, mentors need to exhibit even more patience as we gracefully help them navigate the new waters of Kairos. We need to keep in mind the reality that non-Western students may, at least initially, see mentors as authority figures and may expect us to tell them what to do. Working with them on their individual development process, therefore, may be more of a challenge. It may take some time before the student starts to “get it.” Other parts of the development process, like defining proficiency, may also be a bit more complex in light of the student’s current or former cultural context. Many non-Western students will automatically drift towards standard path learning experiences since a classroom has always been their primary learning venue (interestingly, this is true for Western students, as well). Additionally, many non-Western students may be experts at content but may not have had much opportunity to demonstrate growth in character and craft.

Furthermore, many non-Western students may be more comfortable referring to a mentor as “doctor” or “professor” or “sir/ma’am.” As a result, it may be wise to allow for more formality at first. Then in subsequent meetings, if it is helpful, things can become more informal. However, there is no need to enforce informality. Just like in every other aspect of Kairos, the journey should be shaped in such a way that it meets the needs of the student. Don’t force a student to function in a culture that is foreign to them just because it is more comfortable for you.

In our experience, students from a wide variety of cultures eventually find new freedom in their educational journey in Kairos. While it may be true that non-Western students may take more time to embrace this new freedom, our experience has also shown that all students and mentors have a lot to learn about how and why Kairos works the way it does. Our role as mentors is to embrace this opportunity with patience and an extra dose of grace.

Next week, we will turn our attention toward another challenge we face when mentoring students in and from non-Western contexts: collectivist cultures vs. individualist cultures.

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