Serial Bus

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My Frustrating Experience with Mentorship

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I am en route to the year-end function being hosted by iMentor in Brooklyn. I am going there somewhat reluctantly: more out of a sense of obligation than a sense of excitement, especially when attending the event meant delaying the weekend visit to Middletown.

About 8 months back, I signed up for iMentor – an organization dedicated to providing consultative help to students from underserved communities of New York City. They pair white-collar professionals with students in high school – in the hope that such volunteerism will provide much-needed guidance to students who don’t have access to as many resources as well-off communities. They asked for limited commitment (an email a week and a face-to-face meeting per month) and I didn’t think it would be problem.

Now, I didn’t expect it to be a cakewalk either. I haven’t had much experience coaching, especially younger people. I also made iMentor aware that my contribution may be limited owing to zero experience of schooling in the US – I have no idea how grades, classes, SAT and college admissions work here. Mine was a world of CBSE, percentages and PCMB (i.e. Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Biology). They said I ought not worry as I still could impart knowledge to a student, based on my unique experiences and my station in life.

I knew underserved largely meant minorities and by minorities, I expected my mentee to be either black or Hispanic. I was in for a surprise when they matched me to a Chinese youngster, ZK. When I received the first email matching us, I was quite excited about the prospect of making a difference to the life of an impressionable teenager. So, my first email to him was full of anticipation and eagerness. Since then, it has been gradually downhill.

When I attended the first get-together in downtown, I learnt that his school (Lower East Side Preparatory) was full of largely Chinese immigrants who preferred to speak in their native Mandarin or Cantonese. Having immigrated from China a couple of years back with his parents, ZK was clearly not at ease with English either but he made a brave attempt to converse with me. ZK also had another quality that endeared him to me immediately – he was very blunt about his intentions. The first one of his admissions also estranged him to me gradually; he confided that he wasn’t in the program by choice; it was mandatory for everyone in his class.

Around us however, there were plenty of students who seemed fine with testing the waters – getting to know their mentors, answering questions and asking questions. ZK made no attempt to know me better – he was singularly focussed on displaying his skills with cards which he called ‘magic’. I must say I was impressed with his sleight of hand – but I played along for another reason – the cards game could help break the ice in preparation for a serious chat on topics that we had been brought together to discuss. Sadly, that occasion never arrived.

The mentoring experience has been lacklustre ever since. We were supposed to meet once a month – we have met a total of 2 times in the last 7 months. The emails have been more regular but I felt I was writing to a different person every time I emailed him. The entire class gets a prompt every Friday morning which is meant to help them compose their thoughts and discuss various issues that confront a high-schooler. ZK went about writing every email  mechanically, betraying the formality of a Friday-morning prompt as much as possible. In the beginning, I made several attempts to engage him – I would comment upon the things he said in his email and I would ask him questions and make suggestions for things he struggled with. However, he had the talent to write with complete detachment that gave his emails a surreal other-wordly quality. In simpler terms, his email responses would be like hastily-crafted answers to a class assignment that you loathe. The responses bore zero reference to my own emails and blithely ignored my questions and remonstrations. Progressively, my own emails to him became impersonal and hasty.

Katy, the good-natured and excessively optimistic program coordinator, learnt of my sorrows mid-way through the program. She was taken by surprise like anyone would be, because ZK’s public persona in his school may have been that of a popular entertainer with all thoses aces up his sleeve, literally speaking. She has since been trying hard to help but ZK has proven elusive.

Normally, I wouldn’t be in NYC on a Saturday but I decided to stay back today because I wanted to end my uneventful partnership with ZK on a polite note. Plus, it just seemed rude that I opt out of what was the culmination of a very important process for Katy and her tireless colleagues at iMentor.

I am now on the train to New Haven. The year-end extravaganza was a waste of time because ZK coolly decided not to attend and even worse, he chose to stay quiet about it. As I walked to the Cadman Plaza, I called him to inform that I was minutes away. He unapologetically disclosed that he was not going to join. After confirming his attendance directly with me and through Katy, he had bailed out. That totally blew my top – I asked why he hadn’t thought it fit to  me aware and he mumbled something and I hung up. I guess I wasn’t surprised but I was extremely frustrated with my own baseless optimism in deciding to attend. Katy had rubbed off on me and I was smarting.

Looking back, I wonder why my participation in the program was so disastrous. iMentor’s unbridled enthusiasm in joining forces with several schools to make the program mandatory for the high-schoolers makes the proposition inherently conflicting. Obviously, not all students thus enrolled into a mentoring relationship will appreciate the potential benefits. Some of them may turn out to be plain non-committal, just stopping short of being rude to their respective mentors, who are all volunteers. Without a mentee’s willingness to participate, the relationship lends itself to a very slow start. A volunteering mentor will contribute best when paired with either an eager mentee or a respectful one. ZK was neither. That said, I shouldn’t apportion all blame on iMentor and ZK. Perhaps there was  another pairing as challenging as ZK’s and mine and yet, the mentor may have been able to impress and empathize with the mentee much more effectively, thus gaining his/her respect and cooperation.

As I had begun to write this post, I thought I will be able to end it on a positive note after a good last meeting with ZK. However, the coup de grace he delivered by backing out last moment from today’s event has made me avowedly bitter. I hope majority of the mentees forced into the program benefited from it and that majority of mentors found it to be fulfilling too. I hope I was an outlier but you never know.

(Names have been changed to protect privacy of individuals.)

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Written by serialbus

May 30, 2009 at 9:40 pm

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