New study explores how mentors can help mentees explore their identity

Peifer, J. S., Lawrence, E. C., Williams, J. L., & Leyton-Armakan, J. (2016). The culture of mentoring: Ethnocultural empathy and ethnic identity in mentoring for minority girls. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 22(3), 440-6.


Many mentoring programs involve cross-cultural matches between majority mentors and minority mentees. Although many researchers and practitioners have assumed that cultural matching is important for relationship quality, others find no differences in outcomes based on matching.

Since, ethnic identity formation is a key developmental task with implications for adolescent wellbeing. mentoring may provide an important relational context to support this process (Keller & Pryce, 2010). The authors hypothesized that minority mentees paired with minority mentors would exhibit stronger ethnic identity, and that mentors’ ethnocultural empathy and ethnic identity would be positively associated with mentees’ ethnic identity.


Participants were 95 mentor-mentee pairs from the Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP), which pairs college women with middle school girls. Mentees were racial/ethnic minorities nominated by schools as “at-risk.” Mentors were both majority (56%) and minority group members.

Ethnic identity was measured in mentors and mentees using the Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure (Phinney, 1992), assessing exploration and commitment. Mentors completed the Empathic Feeling and Expression subscale of the Scale of Ethnocultural Empathy (Wang et al., 2003). The study used hierarchical linear regressions to test associations between mentor and mentee ethnic identity variables, controlling for mentor-mentee ethnic match.


Minority mentors scored higher on ethnic identity exploration, commitment, and ethnocultural empathy than majority mentors. Minority mentees also had higher ethnic identity exploration than majority mentees.

Mentors’ ethnocultural empathy and ethnic identity exploration/commitment significantly predicted minority mentees’ ethnic identity exploration, regardless of match status.


Findings suggest mentors’ cultural empathy and exploration of their own ethnic identity may facilitate minority mentees’ willingness to explore their ethnic identity, beyond just being matched with a minority mentor. The authors propose that mentors openly engaging their cultural identities creates a safe context for mentees to do the same exploration.

Ethnocultural empathy also emerged as significant, suggesting mentors’ ability to understand and validate mentees’ cultural experiences enables mentees to further explore their ethnic identity. An empathic stance from mentors may be more impactful than ethnic matching.

Implications for Mentoring

This study highlights the importance of attending to mentors’ cultural competencies like ethnocultural empathy and their willingness to explore their own ethnic identity. Programs should assess and build these capacities in mentors through training.

Rather than solely prioritizing ethnic matching, programs may better serve minority youth by recruiting mentors committed to cultural self-exploration and taking an empathic, validating stance toward mentees’ cultural identities and experiences.

The findings also suggest mentoring can be a powerful context for ethnic identity development among minority youth, with implications for their overall positive development. Mentoring programs should be intentional about creating spaces for such exploration.

As the authors conclude: By providing a relational context of culturally empathic support, mentors may enable mentees of color to explore their identity.

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