Journal of Nursing Education

Transcultural Mentoring: An Experience in Perspective Transformation

Erlinda T Morales-Mann, RN, MA; Kathryn A Smith Higuchi, RN, MEd



This article describes the phases of a transcultural mentoring relationship between Chinese nurses and Canadian nursing professors. Mezirow's adult learning theory of perspective transformation was used to guide this educational experience. An understanding of this learning process sensitized the mentors to the disorienting dilemma and culturally induced behaviors of their protégés. The aims of this article are to provide a description of the mentoring process using Mezirow's framework, describe how this process differed from the traditional mentoring relationship, identify the major factors that influenced the relationship, describe what was learned from the experience and to make recommendations based on the authors' experiences.



This article describes the phases of a transcultural mentoring relationship between Chinese nurses and Canadian nursing professors. Mezirow's adult learning theory of perspective transformation was used to guide this educational experience. An understanding of this learning process sensitized the mentors to the disorienting dilemma and culturally induced behaviors of their protégés. The aims of this article are to provide a description of the mentoring process using Mezirow's framework, describe how this process differed from the traditional mentoring relationship, identify the major factors that influenced the relationship, describe what was learned from the experience and to make recommendations based on the authors' experiences.


Mentoring has been defined in many ways, but one of the critical elements that is always present is a relationship over time between a mentor or experienced person and a protégé or novice. The mentor may undertake the important functions of teacher-guide, role model, advisorcounselor, sponsor and personal friend for the protégé throughout the relationship (Fields, 1991; Prestholdt, 1990). The goal of this association is the personal and professional growth of the protégé in the workplace (Bidwell & Brasier, 1989; Campbell-Heider, 1986; Fields, 1991). In the business world, the benefits of fostering mentor-protégé relationships has been emphasized (Erickson & Pitner, 1980; Price, 1981). Mentoring has been used successfully as a guidance technique in secondary, undergraduate, and graduate education (Borman & Colson, 1984; Bradley, 1981). Kram (1983) described mentoring as a developmental relationship which consists of two dimensions: career or instrumental functions such as coaching, sponsorship and psychosocial functions such as counseling and friendship. These characteristics appear to be the traditional parameters of a mentoring relationship.

Do these parameters change when the participants in the mentoring relationship come from different cultures? The answer is a resounding yes because in transcultural mentoring the instrumental and psychosocial functions of the mentor are situated within a relationship between two people from different cultures. There is an increased emphasis on providing relevant communications and guidance to a culturally diverse individual (Leininger, 1978, 1984).

The purpose of this article is to describe the phases of a transcultural mentoring relationship between Canadian mentors and Chinese protégés. First, the framework used to guide the mentoring program and the rationale that influenced the choice will be described. Second, how the relationship and the elements within it evolved and differed over time from the traditional parameters of a mentorprotégé relationship will be explained. Third, the major factors that influenced the relationship phases, the activities and functions performed congruent with the perceived and expressed needs or problems of the participants will be identified. Finally, what was learned from an evaluation of the activities and functions performed within the mentoring program will be reviewed.

Overview of the Project

The mentoring program was developed to assist the University of Ottawa School of Nursing and Tianjin Medical College School of Nursing Linkage Project to meet its mandate to strengthen Tianjin's nursing curriculum. The project is funded by contributions from the Canadian International Development Agency, University of Ottawa and Tianjin Medical College School of Nursing. It is managed jointly by a director from each school. Each year two Chinese nursing scholars from Tianjin Medical College School of Nursing come to the University of Ottawa School of Nursing for a period of 9 months to study curriculum development, instructional strategies and nursing care specialties of interest to them such as adult care or community health.

The exchange program for each Chinese scholar consisted of three phases: a) preparation, b) education, and c) reintegration. During the preparation phase, some of the scholars' activities included English language training in China, and orientation to Canadian culture, health care system and nursing profession. Each Chinese scholar was assigned to a mentor with clinical expertise that matched the interests of the scholar. With the mentor's assistance, an individualized plan and contract was developed to frame the learning activities critical to meeting the scholar's educational goals. The education phase focused on implementing the scholar's educational goals developed in the previous phase. Some of the learning activities included attending courses within the undergraduate and graduate nursing programs, observing clinical teaching, and developing research projects. The final phase, reintegration, began when the scholar returned to China. Ongoing activities include carrying out research projects and other activities planned in Canada, meeting regularly with other project scholars to implement nursing curriculum changes and maintaining communication with the Canadian mentor and the project team.

Selecting the Framework

The likelihood of widely differing attitudes and beliefs was certain since the participants in the mentoring relationship would be individuals from different continents with disparate political, social, and economic realities. In addition, the asymmetrical nature of the relationship between donors (Canada) and the recipients (China) was a factor expected to affect the behaviors of all participants in the project. To guide the mentoring process, it was imperative to select a methodological framework that emphasized the integral role of culture, education and life experience in shaping the knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs of the participants. These reasons prompted the authors' adoption of Mezirow's (1981) adult education theory of perspective transformation as a framework to guide the mentoring process. Perspective transformation is the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our psychocultural assumptions have come to constrain our perceptions of reality (Mezirow, 1990). Perspective transformation occurs in response to a disorienting dilemma such as a new educational experience that challenges one's previous assumptions. The Chinese faculty member arriving in Canada would learn by reflecting on their experiences in a learning cycle (Table 1) as described by Mezirow (1981). It was believed that the professors who mentored the Chinese scholars would experience a transformation along with their protégés.

Relationship Building

Who among the project members would mentor the Chinese scholars? What characteristics were desirable for mentors? A mentor must be a secure, confident individual with a healthy self-concept, who is a competent clinician and teacher. More importantly, the mentor must be willing to establish an active, long-term relationship with the protégé (Darling, 1984). Effective mentors were also perceived to be supportive, interested, empathie, genuine, patient, knowledgeable, sharing, giving, and accessible (Cronan-Hillix, Gensheimer, Cronan-Hillix, & Davidson, 1986).


TABLE 1Mezirows Learning Cycle (1981)


Mezirows Learning Cycle (1981)

Within this project, the mentor had to be sensitive to different needs, feelings, and perspectives arising from a different culture. The mentor needed to learn these differences, respect and accept them, and work them into the guidelines of the mentoring process. Flexibility, organizational skills, and a strong desire to help a foreign colleague to adapt and learn were other desirable characteristics for an effective mentor.

All of the Canadian participants in this project were volunteers whose motivations included a desire to learn and benefit by participating in an international project. In addition to possessing the characteristics of a successful mentor, the most important criteria employed in selecting a mentor for this project were that the candidates were willing to make a significant time commitment to guide the Chinese scholars and that there was a mutual interest in an area of nursing specialization. Although the Canadian participants were not fully aware of the criteria used to select the Chinese scholars, it was understood that to be chosen was an honor reserved for faculty members who had special qualities. A facility with the English language was mandatory for successful candidates. Canadian and Chinese project managers also wanted to invest the project's resources in a scholar who would return to China to fulfill the project's mandate.

The phases of the relationship that developed between the protégés and their mentors trace the dynamics of the perspective transformation they experienced. The evolution of the relationship will be divided into three phases: initiation, exploration, and integration (Table 2).

Initiation Phase

During the initiation phase, the protégés experienced a disorienting dilemma. Disorientation was the natural response felt by the first Chinese scholar as she stepped off the plane in Ottawa, in the dead of winter. She was completely unprepared for the extreme cold, the relative sparseness of the population, and the great distances one had to travel within the city to get to one's destination. Feelings of isolation and loneliness were the most outstanding disorienting factors experienced by the Chinese scholars.


TABLE 2The Mentoring Relationship


The Mentoring Relationship

The mentors tried to ease the disorientation from the beginning. A welcoming party composed of the mentor and other project members was at the airport to meet each scholar. They were then escorted to their residence and reassured that frequent contact by telephone and visits would be arranged with the mentors. Social gatherings were organized, attended by project members, mentors and other Chinese scholars as well as members of the local Chinese community. Through these early and frequent contacts, the mentor-protégé relationship was initiated. The provision of resources by mentors such as warm clothing and a bicycle for transportation helped forge a friendly relationship at this crucial stage.

The pain of loneliness and disorientation experienced in the initiation phase caused the scholars to question whether the expected learning was worth the sacrifice of separation. During this internal personal process, their initial goals were reviewed. Some were eliminated, others were changed, but most of their goals were reaffirmed.

Exploration Phase

The challenge for the mentors was to know what role was appropriate to play at each phase of the relationship. "Knowing" how to deal with a particular situation or request came from an understanding of the protégé, the particular need, plus a good dose of intuition. This understanding was the result of the mentors' effort to function from a transcultural perspective (DeSantis, 1991) by temporarily stepping out of their cognitive frameworks to perceive the situation through the eyes of the protégés. The mentors confirmed their understanding of the proteges' perceptions through frequent discussions.

During the exploration phase, the protégés were challenged with defining personal objectives for their experience in Canada. This period was characterized by difficulty because the protégés were unaccustomed to stating precise objectives within a specified time period. In their experience, teachers usually imposed the learning objectives and they expected the same from their mentors. Unfamiliarity with the North American approach to learning, as well as the risk of "losing face" if they could not meet the objectives also contributed to the difficulties. An awareness of the mentors' own culturally based values, attitudes, beliefs, and practices (Andrews, 1992) was essential in attaining a bias-free assessment of the protégés' reality.

During this time, the protégés became acutely aware of the difference in their present frame of reference to the one that had to be structured for their new role as a full-time student in Canada. This new situation created discomfort and discontent due mostly to the realization that their present knowledge, skills, and competencies might be insufficient to cope with the new situation. It was important to lend support and reassurance to the protégés through opportunities to share with other Chinese scholars who were having similar experiences. The mentors were careful not to overwhelm the protégés with details on needed changes and the volume of material to be learned.

The proteges' objectives were set within an individualized learning plan and contract mutually developed for the duration of their stay. The major goals were broken into specific objectives that could be accomplished in a given time period, including activities required to meet the objectives (Table 3). The mentors had to resist the temptation to adopt the role of the all-knowing teacher and savior to the helpless student. Firm encouragement to take responsibility for their own learning kept them from slipping into their culturally assumed passive student role. Behaviors were learned from exposure to their mentors, classmates and their experiences in the classrooms and clinical settings. A sustained, nurturing relationship between mentor and protégé (Anderson & Shannon, 1988) created a supportive climate where new knowledge, skills, and attitudes could be discussed and reinforced and where new competencies could be tested with minimum risk.


TABLE 3Learning Contract (Unedited)


Learning Contract (Unedited)

A gradual exposure to new knowledge and teaching methodologies as well as a gradual increase in responsibility helped in building competence and self-confidence in new roles. Whenever possible, similarities between the nursing experience in China and Canada were elicited and discussed as a way of recognizing the value of the scholars' education and experiences.

Later in the exploration phase, with increased comfort and confidence, the protégés were active in deciding what learning experiences they needed. This development was welcomed and supported by the mentors who saw it as a sign of growth and perspective transformation. The protégés identified relevant learning experiences, set priorities, and initiated changes. It was evident that the Chinese scholars had developed a critical awareness of the potential value of their Canadian experience. It was at this point that a critical review of the contract was undertaken on the proteges' initiative, as they felt a need to direct their learning toward priority objectives. The mentors facilitated and reinforced the proteges' decisions.

Integration Phase

In the integration phase, the protégés actively pursued their plans to meet their objectives. The protégés enrolled in courses; one to increase their English proficiency level and another to improve their understanding and facility in the use of various teaching technologies. They audited classes in various years of the nursing program for additional exposure to different instructional strategies.

Outcome criteria were a part of the written contract for each protégé, facilitating the evaluation of initial, interim, and final objectives. Feedback on their progress was given openly within the weekly meetings between mentors and protégés or whenever appropriate (as when a project was completed).

The scholars were encouraged to monitor their own progress. Initially, the self-evaluation process was met with reluctance. In their culture, students did not formally evaluate themselves. To prevent resistance to this process, self-evaluation was described as an invaluable source of information on what and how they were learning. The value of reciprocal accountability was reinforced in the assessment of the mentors' competency in meeting their responsibility. The role and functions of the mentor were clearly articulated at the initiation of the relationship, so measuring the mentor's performance became a natural part of the process. This reinforced the importance of evaluation and the reciprocal nature of the mentoring relationship (Healy & Welchert, 1990).

In the last month of the proteges' study period, discussions centered on defining what elements could be transferred, given their unique clutural context in China. Having experienced perspective transformation, both scholars expressed anxiety that their ideas may not be received positively as not many in their school share their new perspectives. The slow transformation of the rest of the faculty in Tianjin is being carried out within the project's activities. This includes 9-month study periods in Ottawa of four additional faculty members, short visits to Ottawa of senior faculty members, and annual 2-week workshops conducted by University of Ottawa faculty in Tianjin.

Influencing Factors

Culture was seen as the most important factor affecting the mentor-protégé relationship. The Chinese scholars came from an ancient culture strongly affecting their belief systems and behaviors. The Canadian mentors expected different values and norms but did not fully understand the nature and extent of these differences. The mentors strived to implement cultural relativism as well as transcultural reciprocity (Dobson, 1989) in their relations with their Chinese protégés. They acknowledged the cultural difference but not a superiority or inferiority (Berger & Williams, 1992). A spirit of collaboration was encouraged to help shape a study program for the protégés that acknowledged the relevance of different beliefs and practices.

The most obvious differences were the Chinese concepts of time and health. Activities contributing to health, stress and how to avoid it, were considered key as these affected their ability to meet set objectives. Health was considered a state attained and maintained through a balance and harmony of Yin and Yang aspects of nature in one's life. The protégés had definite ideas about how to attain balance and harmony in their fives. They strived for a moderate load of courses that were scheduled in the morning and mid afternoon. This allowed a steady but unhurried pace during school days. Time for a rest after lunch and an early return to their residence for a whole evening for relaxation and reading was important. Learning and working within a group of Chinese friends and colleagues was a pattern in the past so an opportunity to repeat this pattern reduced the stress from the unfamiliar aspects of their situation. Striving for a regular schedule where home prepared meals could be eaten in calm surroundings was a part of the protégés' effort to avoid stress.

Knowledge, attitudes, and skills as a product of the protégés' education and past experiences was the second set of factors that affected the mentoring relationship. A common foundation of knowledge, attitudes, and skills related to nursing facilitated the relationship. Sharing the "language of nursing" was a starting point for assessing the possible areas of difference in content and level of the protégés' knowledge, attitudes, and skills. This task was accomplished initially through interviews, where data pertaining to the proteges' education and past experiences were collected. The information gleaned at this time was instrumental in shaping the proteges' objectives and subsequent program of study in Canada.

The protégés required strong encouragement to express their own objectives from their perceived educational needs. During this process, the mentors had to be prepared to "sit back" and wait until the protégés decided without prodding what they wanted to accomplish. A climate of permissiveness and freedom from sanction was developed in the relationship to encourage risk-taking on the part of the protégés. Without this benevolence, especially at the beginning, the protégés' ability to pursue their own agenda within the project's mandate, may have been compromised.

The influence of culture, education, and past experience was evident in the needs and problems that surfaced for the Chinese scholars. They expressed a desire to learn about the nature of Canadian nursing education in the classroom and clinical area. To observe the roles and responsibilities of the nurse in a special area of interest such as critical care was an important focus. One of the problems noted was the protégés' lack of knowledge about Canadian customs and lifestyles. Another problem was the loneliness they suffered throughout their stay despite frequent visits with Chinese friends. The conflict between their health needs and priorities and a regular class schedule was another problem area. Their low level of English proficiency caused problems throughout their experience.

Anticipating some of these problems and needs was key to planning a study program that would fulfill their learning objectives within the project as well as meet their standard for healthy, harmonious living. Part of the program focused on the appropriate functions of the mentor in response to the needs and problems of the protégés. Some functions that were carried out by the Canadian mentors for their Chinese protégés are noted in Table 1.


As Knox and McGovern (1988) recognized, the mentoring relationship is a special and complex one. The dimensions of a different culture, knowledge base, and past experience added to the complexity of the experience for the mentors and protégés alike. This evaluation will focus on what was learned during each of the phases of the mentoring relationship followed by some recommendations.

The first lesson learned and one that vitally applied to all three phases of the relationship is the importance of preparation. An orientation program to promote an understanding of the country, culture, and characteristics of the people of China and Canada for each mentor and protégé is essential before beginning the mentoring process. Finding a good fit or match between mentors and protégés is necessary for an effective relationship (Cesa & Fraser, 1989). The prospective mentor's and protege's qualities and motivation for this assignment should be well understood by the project directors who will determine the appropriateness of the mentor for the protégé and vice versa. Early in the relationship, each mentor and protégé should receive information on the background, expertise, and interest areas of their prospective mentor or protégé. A listing of the proteges' preliminary objectives sent to the assigned mentor before the protege's arrival is critical for planning learning experiences for the protégé. An exchange of personal letters a few months before the protege's arrival can promote a comfortable feeling of knowing each other.

The mentor must understand the process of perspective transformation that will be experienced by the protégé. Through this knowledge, the mentor can anticipate some of the difficulties, frustrations, needs, and problems that may develop. The mentors must understand the principles of transcultural mentoring and be able to apply them skillfully.

It is important to make early contact with the protégé to facilitate a personal bond. Arranging an early orientation to the facilities and services of the university, with the mentor contributing part of the orientation, is a way of declaring a commitment to the relationship. A consistent link with the mentor must be initiated early to establish a relationship where support and assistance may be offered as needed.

The role, functions, and responsibilities of the protégé and mentor must be made clear from the beginning. The development of a contract where the protege's objectives and activities can be planned, encouraged, and supported serves to clarify the roles. The mentor must realize the investment of time and effort required to develop a relationship with the protégé. The protégé must have frequent access to the mentor for guidance, direction, and support in regularly scheduled meeting times.

Once the protégé begins to integrate new knowledge and skills, opportunities for reinforcement should be arranged, such as a chance to work with Canadian nursing students. It would be useful at this point to encourage the protégé to develop a self-contract with objectives to be met in China including the strategies for their implementation.

The Canadians achieved a myriad of benefits from the mentoring relationship. Over and above the broadening of their knowledge and understanding of a different people and their culture, there was a feeling of accomplishment and intrinsic satisfaction. The added responsibility of contributing to a protege's development transformed the mentors to a heightened sense of efficacy and leadership. A higher level of functioning was achieved through a successful redefinition and assumption of roles in relation to their protege's needs and problems.

Perspective transformation experienced by the protégé in the form of new knowledge, skills, and attitudes receives its true test in China when the protégé reintegrates back into the system of origin. The protege's perspective gains in Canada will hopefully be implemented in China to fulfill the mandate of the project. This very much depends on the climate that is offered to the protégé upon return to China. An openness to and acceptance of the protege's ideas and recommendations will facilitate and support a smoother and more effective reintegration process. The most critical element for a successful integration phase is to develop a network of support for the protégé in China. Charging the protégé with the responsibility of supporting the transformation in future protégés, along with enlightened, supportive colleagues and administration will eventually form this vital support system. Having cultivated the protege's transformation, the mentor must be prepared to offer support and encouragement through the miles to keep the protege's transformation alive.


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Mezirows Learning Cycle (1981)


The Mentoring Relationship


Learning Contract (Unedited)


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