Cross-cultural leadership from Canada to France to China and back: My Mitacs journey as a global citizen

By Justine Salam

In Summer 2016, I took a three-month paid position as a mentor for Mitacs, where I led a team of five Chinese interns who were pursuing research at the University of Waterloo. Little did I know that, a year later, I would travel around the world to see them again in their native China. My mentor experience at Mitacs not only shaped me into a leader, emotional supporter, and global citizen, but it also transformed us as we moved from mentor-mentees into peers.

My Mitacs connection started before my mentor role. In 2015, I received a Mitacs Globalink Research Award to work on a research project at Sciences Po-Paris, France. I spent three delightful months, dividing my time among researching the project, networking with colleagues, and exploring the city of love. I ventured through Sciences Po’s historical buildings, sweating in their overheated library and sipping tea in the gardens. After three months in Paris, I had written a report, expanded my network, enriched my academic experience, discovered new teaching practices — and of course, gained a few pounds.

Upon returning to Canada, I was determined to maintain my relationship with Mitacs. I browsed their website, registered for their newsletter, and kept an eye out for upcoming opportunities. It didn’t take long to find one: the Globalink Research Internship was seeking Globalink Mentors to assist the next undergraduate cohort of interns with logistics, social events, and other support — exactly the kind of opportunity I was looking for.

I interviewed for and was offered the position: I was going to be a Globalink mentor! Mitacs tasked me with organizing social events and providing emotional and social support to interns who were settling in Canada. To my surprise, all my assigned interns were from China. “Well,” I thought, “eating out will be easy!" My interns and I exchanged a few pre-departure emails, I prepared a welcome package, and before long, arrival was upon us.

Four men, one woman: all brilliant undergraduates from top universities in China, and yet understandably intimidated in their new surroundings. A few of them had only left China for the first time for this trip, and the culture shock was significant. I tried multiple leadership strategies to build comfort, including a mix of humour, curiosity, and respect. I made funny comments about my own experience as an immigrant to Canada; I asked them questions about their life in China to create a safe space for them to share their experiences; finally, I listened and observed carefully.

Despite my mentor role, our relationship was fundamentally based on mutual respect: I recognized early on that they had different (and sometimes conflicting) wishes, so I ensured that everyone in the group was valued and appropriately cared for, taking the time to meet with each intern individually. I aligned my own busy schedule as a PhD candidate to theirs as much as possible, but gave them enough time alone to make their own discoveries. Apparently, my enthusiasm was contagious because soon enough, their shyness faded, and I realized they were as excited to be in Canada as I was to be their mentor.

Besides growing as a leader, this experience transformed me from being a person who receives guidance to one who provides it. I had long sought and received advice, supervision, and support at university and elsewhere, and even helped international students navigate the university environment.

But my experience as a Mitacs mentor was completely different: I was my interns’ main source of emotional and logistical support, the “human face” of their journey in Canada. I realized how much they relied on me initially, but instead of being daunted by this, it instead galvanized me into my mentoring role: my interns were counting on me, and I would not let them down.

We first ate the biggest pizza slice they had ever seen — my favourite icebreaker, since no one looks serious eating pizza. Soon enough, I was answering their questions on everything from graduate admissions to the best Chinese restaurants in town.

Part of my Globalink Research Internship mentor role required organizing two social events: I decided on a barbeque coordinated with two other mentors and their respective interns, and a road trip to Niagara Falls. My interns got to the feet of the falls by boat, returning soaked but ecstatic. Encouraged by the success of the first two events, I decided to organize a third one at a local conservation area, where an abandoned limestone quarry had been turned into a small swimming lake. For most of the group, it would be their first time swimming in the wilderness...

Throughout the internship, I made sure that my interns would have multiple opportunities to contribute to our exchanges and share their own traditions. One such time, they invited me to a “real” Chinese restaurant in Waterloo, where they ordered specialties from their home regions and showered me with culinary information, insisting on the differences between the regions of China. We ate family-style, and I was taught the dos and don’ts of Chinese etiquette. Through this meal-sharing experience, I understood the importance of community in Chinese culture and the central place food occupies in bringing people together.

Multiple dinners, card nights, and swimming parties later, my interns’ time in Canada came to an end. I felt a mix of emotions: satisfied, but also saddened by their impending departure. The interns had become an integral part of my life, and our relationship had evolved to become one of mutual trust and respect. Having been in their shoes myself (and benefitting from my own unofficial mentors when I first came to Canada), I was joyous to be able to pay it forward and foster global citizenship in others.

The last week, I hosted a farewell dinner, which we all cooked together. I prepared a little gift package for each of them, containing a framed photo of all of us and a hand-painted stone. During dessert, I asked what they had gained from this internship, and their answers have stuck with me to this day. They shared a sense of having “grown up” and matured. They had become confident and prepared for upcoming challenges. We would all cherish the memories we made, the laughter and funny misunderstandings, the melancholia when they missed home, and the adventures we pursued. But I was most touched by their inspiration to give to others as I had given to them. Life was coming full circle.

At this point, I must have had an emotional face because they stopped and one of them made a joke to bring cheerfulness back. We promised each other that we would meet again.

It is now June 2017. The past year has flown and my dissertation has taken up all my time. A research conference has brought me to Beijing, and I took the opportunity to extend my trip for a personal visit to my (ex!) interns — now they have the chance to guide me in their world. While I wait to pick up my luggage at Beijing Capital International airport, I wonder where life has taken my former interns — fortunately, I will find out in 10 minutes.

Our reunion is euphoric: screams of happiness, hugs, and even a few tears. I’m overjoyed to see each of the students and they’re ecstatic to help me discover their country. I feel their pride as we tour their university campuses. The highlight of the trip is our journey to the Great Wall — its hundreds of kilometres of walls, stairs, and watchtowers stun me.

Over the course of fantastic days, I see first-hand how confident, mature, and experienced my ex-interns have become. Each of them is continuing their studies into graduate school, with three of them returning to Canada to pursue studies at the University of British Columbia, University of Calgary, and McGill University, respectively. As I stand in line in Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, set to fly back to Canada, I feel an immense sense of pride: my Mitacs interns have become fully-fledged graduate students, equipped to do research at various premier institutions. I am sure that each of them will become game-changers in their respective fields, and I hope they reflect fondly on their débuts and give back to the subsequent generation of students.  

Two years and three continents after my initial Mitacs experience, I realize how much I have grown personally and professionally. My vision has enlarged to include leadership, cross-cultural sensitivity, and cognitive intelligence. Our exchanges over the course of the program and beyond has allowed my interns and me to grow in maturity, expand our network, sharpen our skills, and build ourselves as global citizens. For all of this, I am forever grateful.

As the escalators haul me to the restricted airport security area in, I have just enough time to shout: “See you guys soon in Canada, eh!”




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