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Mentoring Manual

Adjusting to a new environment

Switching to a new institution or program may not seem like a significant challenge, but even a temporary change to a nearby institution amounts to a change of culture. Students entering a ny new environment can undergo the same process of cultural adjustment as those studying abroad. Knowing the cycles of this adjustment process can help a student to understand her or his own changes in mood or attitude during a placement or program. The Berkeley International Office provides an insightful guide to cultural adjustment (link) that can be applied to any change of environment.

To ease the adjustment process consider these suggestions: Realize that changes in your mood or attitude are a normal part of the process Keep in touch with friends and faculty at your home institution Take care of yourself with exercise, a healthy diet and plenty of sleep Talk to and others who may be experiencing the same thing Make sure fun and relaxation are part of your routine

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Culture – diversity of background, institutional, program, laboratory

Depending on your family background, the institution that you are coming from and even the size of the school that you attended, the environment that you find yourself in for a field placement can be a dramatic change. Faculty and students need to pay attention to and be sensitive to differences in culture and inherent biases that can impact the success of their interactions and expectations.  A program at a large research institution or in a research laboratory or field station can be quite a cultural shock if you come from a small undergraduate focused institution.

“I think we often forget that each of our cultures: as a Black person, Hispanic, Native American or Asian, may affect our thinking and responsibility to our family as well as our passion for our work.  I think we need to do a better job of acquainting our leaders/mentors with these cultural differences in our students.  Some may say that this is not needed, but an appreciation of one’s family life and upbringing can add to the respect and credibility of the mentor as well as the student.”
- Larry Campbell, Colonel, US Army (Retired), Program Director, Opt Ed, AGEP, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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Institution size and type

The institution size and type may have a dramatic impact on your experience. A small undergraduate focused institution is a very different culture than a large research institution. How you are treated and the resources that you have available can be very different. The key is to understand the differences, to identify your own resources as soon as possible, and adjust your available resources to the support that you need.

Large research focused institutions can feel very impersonal. However, one key is to realize that there are a number of individuals available to provide the support that you need. Ask other students in the laboratory. Ask the office, lab, or shop staff. You may not find that everyone is as helpful as you would like, but there is typically someone very interested in helping. With persistence, one can make the environment in a large research focused institution less impersonal as you get to know people and build your network of support. In fact, your faculty mentor may be used to students and interns going to others for assistance and may not have as much direct experience with who may be available to assist you as your fellow students or student mentors.

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Region of the country

"Culture in the United States varies quite significantly between regions, even within a region. You may come from an environment where people are open and say hello and often ask how you are and if they can help. Now you may be in an environment where people will not approach you unless you state a clear need. The differences will likely be particularly noticeable when you are outside of your research group and outside of the institution. Many of the faculty and graduate students are from across the globe. However, support staff and many others you will encounter in the surrounding town or city, are typically local.

The key is to remember that you may not be in the best position to understand the motivation behind a person’s action. If someone says “hi” and little else, they may simply be pressed for time or need an occasion to talk. Some have a different time scale for conversations. In the upper Midwest, we talk about the weather, sometimes for quite a while. It is a non-controversial topic and some can feel quite connected after a conversation about the weather. In some parts of the country, there are long pauses in a person’s statements. Or, any small gap allows time for the next person to start talking. If you are one of those who is raised in an culture where a small pause in a person’s statement is an invitation to talk, imagine being in a discussion with someone where long pauses are part of a normal conversation and are not an invitation for you to start talking. Going to an institution near the east coast I found that pauses in conversation led many people in the lab thinking that I was arrogant. It just took a while until I would open up. After some weeks and a few conversations, I developed a camaraderie with people who were comfortable enough to tell me of their impressions from those first weeks.

The key is to be aware and not assume ill intent."

- Dr. J. Adin Mann, M.E., Iowa State University

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