Mentorship is a key way for alumni to stay connected with SIS and support current students. We recently spoke to Christina Dinh, SIS/MA ’13, an alumna from the Comparative and Regional Studies (CRS) program, about her involvement in the SIS Alumni Mentoring Program and learned about what she hopes to pass on to the students she mentors.
Christina currently is a contract senior program officer in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State, where she oversees exchange programs, in consultation with US embassies and missions overseas, for foreign scholars, secondary educators, and student leader participants. Previously, she worked at World Learning, where she managed the East Asia and Pacific and Western Hemisphere regional portfolios for the Fulbright Specialist Program.
Mentoring Other Asian Americans
Now in her second year of volunteering with the SIS Alumni Mentorship Program, Christina has mentored five students, but she’s spoken informally to many more Black, Indigenous, or other Person of Color (BIPOC) students who have reached out after seeing her profile: “I saw that as a space I could contribute to, especially as a first generation Asian-American woman going into foreign affairs, having been in the DC area for the past decade or so and having done my master’s at SIS. There weren’t really many examples of Asian American women in foreign affairs.”
Christina hopes she can take the challenging experiences she has faced in the professional world and translate them into positive learning experiences for students; she also hopes that mentorship can help launch more Asian-American women into leadership roles in the future: “Being where I am today, I am a lot more cognizant of the lack of people who look like me in leadership positions.”
Christina also highlights the importance of mentoring first-generation students, students of color, and students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Her goals are to one day be in a leadership role and implement the changes that she feels are necessary for a more diverse and inclusive workspace that represents the diversity of the population as a whole.
“I have this hope that, by me providing this knowledge and these best practices, their journey— their path—will be that much easier, so that one day they can just break through the bamboo ceiling,” Christina says.
When Mentoring, Learning Goes Both Ways
As much as mentees learn from their mentors, mentors also take valuable knowledge from students that they can incorporate into their own careers. Christina notes that as someone in a leadership position, conversations with her mentees help her adapt her management style: “I gain an empathetic understanding to what they need as an employee and how I can help them succeed.”
Christina also notes that an awareness of the difference between intent and impact is important when trying to be cognizant of the needs of employees and colleagues.
“You may have the best intentions, but at the end of the day, your intentions matter less than your impact,” she emphasized. “You can’t understand your impact if you do not understand the people you’re communicating with.”
Tips and Advice
Christina notes that every individual holds a variety of different identities that can intersect, resulting in greater or lesser access, privilege, or power. She tells her mentees that there are many areas of common ground where students can come together under their identities; being open to others you might not expect to be within your sphere or community can yield positive results.
Christina believes that shared knowledge and camaraderie can serve as a great source of support for those who are marginalized in some way. It is within these shared spaces that Christina advises students to form their own networks.
“It is really important when you are coming out of school to have those networks, whether personal or professional, to really understand who you are as a worker and an individual,” she says.
For students who come from diverse backgrounds, Christina acknowledges that while there may be challenges in being the only “you” in a room, it is important to remember that students need to leverage their experiences and remember that, in those cases, they add irreplaceable value: “They bring a unique experience and perspective and have likely encountered a lot of adversity and challenges that other people have not. But it is that adaptability— that tenacity—that has brought them to where they are today. So leverage that—not as a weakness, but as a strength. This is what makes you unique.”
And Christina has learned, from her own experience, about that using that strength: “I would tell my younger self not to blend in as much because my experiences, my insight, and my perspective has value. There is power in being different.”
Finally, Christina advises students not to be afraid of failure. “Don’t be afraid to seek out those who have failed a lot. We do not learn if we are always successful; if you are constantly successful, you only learn a singular, individual path. However, failure teaches you a lot of different pathways.”