INTRODUCTION: As an English instructor at a California community college with a strong Hispanic enrollment, I am involved with an academic preparation program called Puente whose mission is “to increase the number of educationally disadvantaged students who enroll in four-year colleges and universities, earn college degrees, and return to the community as mentors and leaders of future generations.”

In one feature of the Puente program, students are matched with a professionally and academically successful mentor from the community, including business people, lawyers, engineers, educators, social workers, corporate administrators, and other professional people.

One of the challenges of the Puente mentoring component has been ensuring that mentors and their mentees meet on a regular basis.  Problems arise when an appointment between the two has been scheduled and one fails to show up at the scheduled time.  Frustration and misunderstandings between the mentor and the student often ensue.

In the past, we have given mentors information about the backgrounds of our students and urged them to be patient with their mentees, and we have lectured our students on the importance of following through on their commitments. These efforts have been only marginally effective with both groups.

To improve mentor-mentee relationships, I decided to create a case study that I could use with both groups. This case study could also be adapted for training the staff of any academic support program in which students make scheduled appointments, including counseling, tutoring, supplemental instruction, peer mentoring, and even instructor/student conferencing. It could also be used with students to get them to identify how they could make wiser choices for keeping appointments and commitments they have made. Finally, it would be an effective activity in a student success course that has students explore the topic of personal responsibility. The activity takes 40–50 minutes

PURPOSE: To help mentors/students to…

  • accept greater personal responsibility for the outcomes in their mentoring relationship with each other.
  • identify various factors that influence the decision making process.
  • identify ways in which they can improve the effectiveness of their relationship.
  • recognize that working interdependently can lead to more successful results.


  • HANDOUT: The Missed Mentor Meeting (case study appended below)
  • Pens
  • Blackboard or flip chart
  • Chalk or markers


1. Have participants read “The Missed Mentor Meeting” aloud, taking turns reading paragraphs until the reading is complete.  Say: “At the bottom of your handout is a list of the characters in this story.  Rank them in the order of their responsibility for the missed meeting between Karla and her mentor. Give a different score to each character. One (1) is most responsible and five (5) is least responsible.  Be prepared to explain your choices.” (5 minutes)

2. Place participants in small groups of 3-4 and say: “Compare the numbers you assigned to each character with those of your group members.  Explain your rationale for your scores. Then come to a group consensus as to how each character should be ranked. You will be sharing your results with the other groups.” While the groups are working, write across the top of the board/flip chart a number representing each group (eg. Group 1, Group 2, Group 3, etc.). Down the left side of the board/flip chart, list the characters in the case study (eg. Karla, Lilia, Mario, etc.). (10 minutes)

3. Ask a spokesperson from each group to give the group’s ranking of the characters, recording each group’s response on the board. (5 minutes)

4. After all responses are recorded, note similarities and differences between each group’s choices.  Say:  “As we can see, no two groups ranked the characters in exactly the same way; therefore, I’d like to give each group the opportunity to explain its choices.  Let’s begin by looking at the person you held most responsible for the missed meeting. Who would like to begin?”  [Instructor’s Note: If all groups choose the same character as number one (most responsible), begin with the character they think is least responsible.  There is often more diversity of opinion here.] (5 minutes).

5. Allow each group an opportunity to explain its position on a particular character in more detail and to rebut opposing views. As time allows, invite groups to explain their positions on other characters. (10–20 minutes)

6. Debrief the discussion by means of journal writing and/or group discussion, using the following questions: From this discussion, what did you learn or relearn about personal responsibility? What did you learn or relearn about the factors that can influence decision making?  How can you use this information to improve your own effectiveness in the mentoring relationship? What is the life lesson here? (5–10 minutes)


When the 20 mentors arrived for an evening training, most had come directly from work and were tired.  They listened politely as they were given a recap of the Puente Project’s mission and a profile of this year’s group of students (whom they had not yet met).  The energy in the room was low when I began the activity, but within minutes of starting to read the case study, the energy began to rise.  When each person had finished ranking the characters in the story, they were looking around at one another, anxious to share their results and hear from others.

As they met with their small groups, the discussions were energetic. Within a few minutes, a room full of tired professionals had transformed into an active, excited, involved group, reminding me of the power of learner-centered activities.  These mentors, who had not spoken much to one another prior to this activity, now did not want to stop when time for the whole group discussion. As I asked for each group’s rankings and listed them on the board, I heard murmurings from various individuals as they realized that different groups had different rankings for the characters; they had apparently assumed they would all have the same rankings.  This surprised me because I thought they, as experienced professionals, would all know that each person would approach the situation from a different perspective. 

I was also surprised at the rankings themselves. I had assumed that the mentors would agree that the student Karla was the one most responsible for the missed meeting and that the discussion would revolve around the lesser degree to which the other characters were responsible. However, one group out of the four and individuals from other groups had ranked the mentor Lilia as most responsible and then Karla. This kicked off a fascinating discussion on what level of personal responsibility should reasonably be expected from Karla as a young Latina student versus what actions the more mature mentor should have taken. 

For example, one mentor argued, “At the very beginning of the story, Karla had the power to tell Lilia that she didn’t have transportation and ask to move the meeting to the Starbucks closer to [Karla’s] house.”  Another replied, “Karla had already told Lilia that she didn’t have transportation, yet Lilia told her that she was sure she could find a ride.  At that point Karla wasn’t going to argue.  I know that I was raised not to argue with a teacher or adult and if they told you to do something, then it was expected that you would do it. End of discussion.”  Another mentor added, “Realistically, Karla doesn’t have the power to ‘tell’ Lilia anything.”  One of the men in the group asserted, “Well, my daughter has the ability to assert herself.”  Another mentor responded, “That’s great, but you didn’t raise Karla. She was brought up like I was.” 

This and the rest of the discussion continued to be spirited.  The mentors learned from one another that the choices Karla made were not done in a vacuum.  While they all agreed that Karla needed to grow in the area of personal responsibility, they also realized there were areas in which they as mentors had more choices than they thought and they could see how they might be more supportive of their own mentees.

Later, when I repeated the activity with the students, the experience was similar. There was an increase of energy in the class as the students began debating the responsibility of each character.

As a class, they agreed that ultimately Karla was responsible for her own choices; however, they saw themselves facing the same obstacles that Karla needed to overcome in order to make wise choices, namely her low self-esteem, cultural influences, difficult relationships, the lack of parental support, and the lack of resources like having a car. “I never stopped to think how many different things affect the decisions I make,” one student observed.

Interestingly, the students felt that Lilia, the mentor, shared responsibility with Karla because Lilia was older, more experienced, and had more resources at her disposal so should have been more understanding and accommodating in her relationship with Karla.  One student pointed out, “If Lilia didn’t have the patience or willingness to reach out to and support Karla, she shouldn’t have signed up to be a mentor.”


I was pleased that the case study achieved its four purposes as demonstrated through the discussion and by comments made by mentors following the training. Since one of the main purposes of this activity was “to help mentors recognize and accept personal responsibility for the outcomes in their mentoring relationship with the students,” I was pleasantly surprised that so many of the mentors selected Lilia Diaz, the mentor, as the character most responsible for the missed mentor meeting as detailed above. In addition, they made the connection to their own lives, both personally and professionally. One mentor commented, “This case study really helped me see the difference between responding like a Victim in a situation instead of taking personal responsibility.” Another said, “I realize that when my student doesn’t follow through on something, I react like a Victim, which makes it difficult for me to see anything from the student’s perspective.”

In addition, the mentors were able to “identify various factors that influence the decision making process.” In addition to cultural background, they identified significant relationships, fear, and low self-esteem as some of the contributing factors to Karla’s choices. One of the mentors admitted, “I tend to forget that things happen in life [both the student’s and mine], and I fail to recognize the role I play in them.” Someone else commented, “I need to think outside of myself when things come up [in my student’s life].”

Although the mentors recognized that students are responsible for their own choices, each of them agreed that there were specific actions that they could take to “improve their effectiveness as mentors.”  For example, the mentors said they could take more initiative in their interactions with their mentees, since they [the mentors] have more maturity and resources. They also pointed out that when a student misses an appointment, doesn’t return a phone call, or is doing poorly in class, the mentors should not assume that the student is simply irresponsible, but dig deeper to find out what is really impacting the student’s life and determine how they can be of assistance. As a result of their discussion, the mentors also recognized that the success of the mentoring relationship is contingent on both the mentor and the student working together in an “interdependent” relationship. An added benefit came from a mentor who was excited by the case study activity itself: “I can use this idea with my colleagues at work.”

For their part, the students became more aware of the need to be open and honest with their mentors about their circumstances. A young, female Hispanic student said, “I can see now that it is important to speak up for myself even if I feel uncomfortable.” As the students identified obstacles in their own lives that could interfere with their following through on their mentoring appointments, they also created a plan to overcome those obstacles. “I can see that I really need to start using my planner to write things down. I always think I’m going to remember, but I know I forget,” commented another student.

The most rewarding outcome was the positive effect this case-study had on the mentoring component as a whole.  Throughout the year, I heard from students that their mentors were picking them up for their appointments at home or meeting them at school. I heard from mentors that students were being more open about sharing obstacles to their academic and personal success than they had in the past.  Best of all, no mentor or student missed a scheduled meeting with one another!


Overall, I was reminded that all of us – students, instructors, counselors, and professionals – all share the same issues when it comes to accepting personal responsibility: We can respond as Victims or Creators.  Because I have been teaching On Course Principles for several years, recognizing Victim/Creator thinking has become a natural part of who I am. However, my interactions with the mentors showed me that, although people may be highly educated and successful, they may not be aware of the extent to which their choices determine their outcomes and experiences.

SOURCE: Inspiration for this case study came from a case study entitled, “The Late Paper,” in Skip Downing’s On Course: Strategies for Success in College and in Life.


Case Study: The Missed Mentor Meeting

At the Puente orientation, everyone was told that one of the components of the Puente Program was that all students would be matched up with a mentor, a professional from the community.  The evening of the Puente Mentor event, KARLA was nervous but excited to meet her mentor.  When she was first introduced to LILIA DIAZ, a business professional, Karla was so intimidated by this well-dressed, confident woman, she didn’t know what to say.  However, Ms. Diaz was very friendly and encouraged Karla to share a little bit about herself.  Talking about herself was difficult for Karla because she had been taught that being respectful meant you should stay quiet, but she told Ms. Diaz – who said to call her Lilia – a few things and listened with interest as Lilia shared a bit about herself.

At the end of the evening, Karla and Lilia exchanged phone numbers, and discussed where they would meet for their first “official” get-together. Lilia asked, “Why don’t you meet me at five o’clock next Wednesday at the Starbucks across the street from where I work in Mission Valley ?”

Karla lived in San Ysidro, nowhere near Mission Valley .  Hesitantly, she explained, “I don’t have a car to get there.”

“I’m sure there is someone who can give you a ride.  It’s okay if you’re a couple of minutes late; just be sure to call me.” She gave Karla her office number.

“Uh, okay,” Karla agreed.

The following Wednesday, Karla was eating lunch with her boyfriend MARIO.  Mario had not been very supportive of her going to college and was especially frustrated with the extra time that Karla spent at Puente activities in the evenings and on weekends even though they only occurred once or twice a month.  “Why do you have to go to school?” he always complained. “Aren’t I good enough for you?  You think you’re gonna find someone better than me?  I’m the one that’s been with you since high school.  When you were having problems with your parents, who came and picked you up? Me, that’s who.  Now you act like I’m not important, spendin’ all your time with your school friends.”

Karla’s cell phone rang.  It was Lilia. “Hi, Karla! I just wanted to make sure that were still on for tonight.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Karla, glancing nervously at Mario.

“Great! See you at Starbucks.”

Hanging up her phone, Karla wondered how she had forgotten about the meeting with her mentor.  She usually remembered everything, unlike those people who had to write everything down on a calendar.  When she told Mario that they couldn’t hang out this evening because she had an appointment with her new mentor and asked him to take her, he blew up. “Yeah, right!  You think I’m gonna help you out when you disrespect me like this? Find your own ride!” Mario cursed and stormed off.

Karla was torn between going after Mario to try to smooth things over and finding a way to get to her appointment with Lilia.  Near tears, Karla called her friend CRISTINA, another Puente student, for help.  Cristina said, “Don’t worry about Mario. You don’t need him.  I’ll pick you up in front of the library at 4:30 .” 

Karla was ready to go at 4:30 ; however, fifteen minutes passed before Cristina pulled into the parking lot.  “Sorry.  I had to pick up my brother at school and take him home.  Now all I have to do is stop and get gas, and we will be on our way.”  Karla glanced nervously at her watch.  By the time they had pulled out of the gas station, it was 5:00 . Karla pulled her phone out of her purse and called the work number Lilia had given her. 

SUSAN, the receptionist at Lilia’s workplace let the phone ring a couple of times before she picked it up.  “Who’s calling at this time?  Don’t they know we are closed?” she thought with frustration as she answered.  Karla explained her situation, and Susan said that she would call Lilia and let her know that Karla was running late.  Just as she hung up, though, Susan suddenly remembered that it was her turn to pick up the kids at daycare, and she rushed out the door.

At 5:15 , Lilia, sitting at Starbucks, checked her cell phone one more time for messages.  There were none.  Frustrated and even a little angry, she looked around one more time for Karla, picked up her briefcase, and left.  At 5:30 , Karla and Cristina pulled up to Starbucks. 

 * * *

Listed below are the characters in this story.  Rank them in the order of their responsibility for the missed meeting between Karla and her mentor. Give a different score to each character.  Be prepared to explain your choices.

Most responsible          1     2     3     4     5        Least responsible

____ Karla                                ____ Susan                            ____ Lilia Diaz

____ Cristina                            ____ Mario


–Eileen Zamora, Faculty, Composition, Literature and Personal Development, Southwestern Community College, CA

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