Practice Area Column
International Education Leadership

The Mentorship Extra Mile

Often mutually beneficial, mentor-mentee relationships play a crucial role for international education leaders—or those who aspire to pursue leadership roles.
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Jeet Joshee and Dan Gerber met in the 1980s when Joshee was an upperclassman and Gerber an underclassman at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Joshee showed Gerber the ropes at the Center for International Education and how to navigate the academic landscape.

When Gerber applied for a doctoral program at the university, Joshee was a doctoral student and coordinator for its admissions committee. He advised Gerber to highlight for the committee his desire to study adult-learning theory so Gerber would have a better shot at being accepted.

Gerber was accepted, and today he is creator and director of the undergraduate public health program and the academic dean at the university.

“None of this would have happened if [Joshee] didn’t see something in me, probably before I saw it myself,” says Gerber, who now mentors others in international education.

Many who are leaders in the international education arena had a mentor—even if they did not call them that—who advised on networking, institutional politics, handling difficult people, and more. Many of those leaders have gone on to mentor others in the field.

“The field ensures its continuity by grooming the next generations of leaders within each of the knowledge communities.”—Funwi Ayuninjam

“International education has always involved practitioners with broad ranges of knowledge, expertise, and experience,” says Funwi Ayuninjam, director of internationalization at Georgia Gwinnett College. “The field ensures its continuity by grooming the next generations of leaders within each of the knowledge communities.”

Finding Each Other

When Pia Wood was a new assistant professor at Virginia’s Old Dominion University, her department chair took Wood under her wing.

“She helped me in so many ways,” says Wood, who is vice provost and dean of international affairs at the University of North Texas. “Teaching advice. Navigating the department and university politics. Introducing me to colleagues. Giving advice on how to get published. She strongly recommended that I move into higher education administration. I may not have made the move without her support.”

While Wood connected with her mentor through her department, she says that finding a suitable mentor or mentee can take some work. Those seeking these relationships can find them outside of their institutions through structured programs, such as the NAFSA Academy for International Education, the Executive Internationalization Leadership e-Institute, and NAFSA’s regional mentoring offerings. Similar programs can be found through other professional associations.

“If I wanted to look for someone as a mentor now, I would look at senior international officers who I admire at other universities.”—Susan Popko

Mentorships can also develop through interactions at work or professional development settings, sometimes across institutions or even professions.

“If I wanted to look for someone as a mentor now, I would look at senior international officers who I admire at other universities,” says Susan Popko, associate provost for international programs at Santa Clara University in California. “Go to the web and look at institutional profiles. Read bios. Look at the departments or universities they’re leading. Try to understand the issues they’re tackling."

Popko adds that it is important to go beyond the professional when looking for a mentor or mentee. “Meet with multiple people and find out if you connect,” she says. “Mentorship is personal as well as professional, and honesty and trust are key to an effective mentorship relationship.”

Structuring a Mentorship

Once both parties have connected and signaled a willingness to pursue a mentor-mentee relationship, a good first step is to clearly establish the goals of the relationship by considering key questions.

Is the relationship structured around a specific goal, like advancing into international education leadership or moving from education abroad into international student and scholar services? Is it meant to provide a “safe place” for the mentee to vent, confide, and seek advice? Does it focus on a specific skill, like networking or public speaking?

Both parties should also consider how to best work together and establish expectations upfront.

For example, is the mentor comfortable with the mentee calling out of the blue to get advice on critical issues? Or will it be a more formal arrangement, with set days and times to meet and little outside socializing?

As for dos and don’ts, experts advise that those in the mentor role should be respectful and empathetic as well as active listeners. They should maintain confidentiality, be sensitive to each mentee’s situation—professional and personal—and stay in touch after the mentorship ends.  Mentors should also be cognizant not to lecture or criticize their mentee or focus on all the things they have done in their own careers.

The Benefits

Ayuninjam has benefitted from mentorship throughout his career. In 2001, when he was newly appointed as director of global education and programs at Kentucky State University, Ayuninjam attended the NAFSA Academy. Two of his trainers, Sherif Barsoum and Patti Jones, have stayed in touch in unofficial mentor roles, offering expertise and counsel.

“I spoke with them as recently as February 2022, when I was at a [professional] crossroads,” says Ayuninjam, who has become a mentor himself through AIEA.

When Ayuninjam first arrived at the college in 2014, the Office of Internationalization was only 2 years old. Neal McCrillis—then at Columbus State University—hosted Ayuninjam ‘s team on his campus to help with training and development, as Ayuninjam was new and the office in its infancy.

“They shared with us everything from recruitment to student housing to education abroad to intensive English programming,” says Ayuninjam. “That was priceless advice.”

The benefits to the mentees are evident: They have a sounding board and an adviser, someone who has learned the administrative ropes and who knows what it takes to move up the ranks.

“Most new international educators desperately needed on-the-job training to be successful. The best way is to find successful models.”—Neal McCrillis

“Historically, international education was a field one entered from another career, such as serving in the faculty, international law, or diplomacy,” says McCrillis, who is vice provost for global engagement at the University of Illinois-Chicago and who has mentored up to 25 international educators.  “Most new international educators desperately needed on-the-job training to be successful. The best way is to find successful models.”

Earlier in her career, when Popko encountered what she called a “challenging, sensitive, and confidential” situation in her department, her mentor “helped me understand that the situation I was facing was not unique and, frankly, a pretty typical example of the types of leadership challenges we deal with.”

It is not just anecdotal—the data speak to the benefits of having a mentor. Mentees are five times more likely to be promoted than those without a mentor, according to a five-year study of 1,000 employees by Gartner for Sun Microsystems. Nine in 10 workers with a mentor say they feel happier within their career, according to a 2019 CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workplace Happiness Survey.

Data show that mentors also benefit from having mentees. Mentors are six times more likely to be promoted compared with their coworkers, according to the Sun Microsystems study.

That’s because, as Ayuninjam points out, “mentoring is not a one-way learning process.”

“The mentee learns some aspects of the mentor’s journey that she or he can imbibe or guard against, while the mentor has a chance to find fresh perspectives through the relationship,” he says. “I’m not there merely to share but also to listen and learn.”

“Mentoring is not a one-way learning process.”—Funwi Ayuninjam

Mentorship is also important for diversifying the leadership ranks in international education, particularly among women and people of color. “Walking into a leadership situation where you’re the only woman suddenly means you have to prove yourself,” Popko says. “And if you happen to be younger or blonder or a person of color, there are certain assumptions that may be made about your background or your leadership. It’s helpful having another woman where you could talk about, ‘Wow I’m the only one woman in this entire room now. This is what I’m experiencing, and do you have advice?’”

Paying It Forward

It is no coincidence that many people who had mentors early in their international education career are eager to play the same role with colleagues who are newer to the field nor that they encourage others to do the same.

Today, when Gerber writes a reference for a student he mentored, he attaches a note that encourages them to take up mentoring:

“Someone once went the extra mile for me when they didn’t have to, and little did they know that that little extra mile would make a major difference in my life. Sometime in the future you are going to be in a position to go the extra mile for someone.”  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA serves the needs of more than 10,000 members and international educators worldwide at more than 3,500 institutions, in over 150 countries.

NAFSA membership provides you with unmatched access to best-in-class programs, critical updates, and resources to professionalize your practice. Members gain unrivaled opportunities to partner with experienced international education leaders.