THE INTERVIEWS: ELLEN MAHONEY

22 Feb 2015 3:26 PM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)


This is the third in a series of excerpts from the  first FIGT Yearbook, written by the 2014 Parfitt Pascoe Writing Residents

Insights and Interviews from the 2014 Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference

The Global Family Redefined

By Dounia Bertuccelli

More and more children are growing up among worlds, calling many places home and picking up unique skills from their international childhoods. Until recently, there was no organization to help these kids transition into adult- hood and make the most of the skills they have acquired. But Sea Change Mentoring’s founder and CEO Ellen Mahoney has created just the place for them.

Ellen grew up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) in various locations of the US and Asia. As an adult, after attending university in Oregon, she lived and worked in Washington DC. and New York. She is currently based in San Francisco, where she lives with her husband Jared, an American who lived in the same town his whole life (in Southern California). He has some experience as an expat from living in Korea during his time with the Air Force.

As an Adult TCK Ellen knows the challenges that come with a global lifestyle. Having worked regularly with kids, both in schools and youth development, she knew how to build relationships with them. She also wanted to give back to the international community, so she combined her professional skills with her personal background to create a one-of-a-kind mentoring program.

The Beginning: Returning ‘Home’

Growing up as a TCK, Ellen was exposed to many cultures while attending schools in Tokyo and Singapore. But upon returning to Connecticut for school, from 7th-10th grade, she was shocked by the intolerance and racism she encountered.

“It was a mono-cultural and very privileged society,” she recalled. “I felt like an outsider.”

She was happy to move to Singapore for her last two years of high school, as Asia is where she felt most comfortable. But once she graduated she returned to the US for college.

After a difficult first year at Wittenberg, in Ohio, Ellen contemplated dropping out because she was so unhappy. But her high school English teacher and mentor advised her to switch colleges and attend the University of Oregon, where her son was also a student. That change made all the difference. Knowing another TCK helped the transition and she finally found stability, made friends and completed her English degree.

Despite this positive transition, she battled with depression for seven years. She suffered from reverse culture shock, not knowing other TCKs and having no support system nearby. She eventually went to therapy, which helped, but she didn’t talk about growing up overseas.

Only years later she realized the impact of her experiences and the importance of her time at the International School of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo. It was there that she had a first glimpse into her future career because it taught its students about giving back.

“It planted the first seed [of mentoring], and many of my friends have also gone into jobs that help [their communities],” she said.

The First Step: Working in Education

Before Ellen began her career in mentoring she worked in different sectors of education. While she was still a student she volunteered at Girls, Inc., which worked with ‘at-risk’ youth in junior high. It was an eye-opening experience.

“It was my first insight into the public school system in the US and I was shocked,” she recalled. She had really believed in the system and the opportunity for free and fair education, but she realized that it wasn’t always the case. She was surprised and impressed by many of the students she worked with.

“Those girls were smart, bold and brave,” she said.

That first foray into education eventually led her to Washington DC. where she worked at the Lab School of Washington and wrote a new curriculum on media literacy. She then got a degree in counseling from George Washington University and worked at the School Without Walls as a Humanities and creative writing teacher.

What she learned during her years in education and working with children would have a huge impact in her future career. Her experiences taught her what works best with kids and how to help them.

“I understood the power of a relationship,” Ellen said. “One adult outside of parents who believes in you can make such a difference.”

The Next Step: iMentor

Unfortunately not everyone she worked with had the same motivation and determination to help. She was seeing kids excel in difficult situations, but then fighting against barriers created by adults. After working in several different organizations and needing new inspiration, Ellen began looking for a well run non-profit.

She had very specific guidelines in mind and wanted an organization that:

    Had sustainable and diverse funding

    Used technology

    Knew that relationships were important

    Had adults who removed barriers instead of creating them

The non-profit she was looking for turned out to be an innovative start-up, with a ‘big brother/sister’ mentoring program: iMentor. Today iMentor is a leading e-mentoring program with over 200 employees but when Ellen joined she was the 9th person hired. At iMentor she screened and selected all the mentors, did quality control, and even strategic work with the CEO, but there was one area that really stood out for her. “I fell in love with research,” she said. “It was our ethical responsibility to know the research in our professional field.” This interest and diligence in research would prove to be very useful in the future when Ellen would look into creating her own company.

The Epiphany: 2011 Tsunami

Although Ellen was happy at work, had friends, got married and had a good support system, she still didn’t have any TCK friends. Even though she had grown up as a TCK, she didn’t really embrace her background.

“I never allowed myself to acknowledge that part of me,” she observed.

She wondered what kind of a role model she could be when she didn’t even recognize all of herself. But then a catastrophic event opened her eyes. The 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan opened an unexpected floodgate of emotion she couldn’t explain. Her husband reminded her it was normal she was so upset because Japan had been one of her childhood homes. Only then did she start to understand the importance and the depth of her TCK background.

Ellen realized she wanted and needed to help. She emailed her school in Tokyo to ask what she could do to help. That led to a Skype call with her old home-economics teacher, who told her the students weren’t getting any help after leaving school and they really needed someone to guide them. That’s when Ellen came up with her idea for a TCK mentoring program. She knew what worked with kids, she had experience in youth development and she also knew the impact the TCK lifestyle could have.

“Someone had to help,” she recalled. “And I had promised to help.”

The New Beginning: Sea Change Mentoring

Ellen stayed true to her promise and very shortly after the tsunami she created Sea Change Mentoring. She reviewed the research, outlined a curriculum and talked to the community.

“I felt so energized,” she said. “And so lucky to find an intersection of my professional skills and my personal story.”

Her program works with TCKs between the ages of 16-23, helping them through transitions and to market their skills in the working world. She emphasizes the importance of not generalizing when it comes to TCKs, because everyone’s experiences are different. She also notes that TCKs and expats are no longer mostly American and organizations need to be aware of those changes. At Sea Change support comes from multiple perspectives and she tailors her work for each young adult, family or organization. She knows that the best way to help someone is to ask questions and be attuned to each person’s individuality.

“We identify the strengths of each child to help him/her build on those,” she said.

Ellen maintains a rigorous screening process to ensure all the mentors are professional and there is no risk of them projecting their experiences onto their protégés. After potential mentors make it through the initial screening, they have a personal interview with Ellen; they must also provide three references and show they have mentor characteristics. All mentors must be ATCKs, and anyone interested in mentoring must apply via the online form on the Sea Change website. Once selected, they receive ongoing training and are paid mentors, not volunteers.

The mentor-protégé relationships last for at least two years, with online meetings about once a week. The Skype sessions usually last one hour and are always recorded with an app for supervision and safety reasons. The mentors follow a curriculum Ellen wrote with her advisor Josh Stager based on TCK and youth development research.

How the mentors help their protégés:

“The mentors use this [the curriculum] in various ways, including conversation starters, activities and games,” she said. “We also evaluate the program via online tools that helps us capture the growth and satisfaction of the protégé.”

“By simply being there, listening and relating (which is more powerful than people realize)”

“Sharing information with them about social emotional adjustment, moving, saying goodbye, choosing a career and tertiary education”

“Connecting them with resources and ideas that can help the protégé make good decisions”

Ellen wants to help young people develop the positive aspects of their TCK background – not only support them during hard times. A lot of services come across negatively and that is not the way to help families. There must be a reinforcement of positive youth development, while still acknowledging the challenges.

“Sea Change is not just about prevention; it’s a promotion tool,” she explained. “It helps promote the assets of young people.

Funding for Sea Change comes from families, who pay a yearly fee for the services, and also from investments/partnerships with international schools and corporations. The cost for families can vary depending on how much income they bring in, whether the parents are paying the fee directly or if they have a sponsoring organization and what kind of services they are seeking. “We provide a lot of additional services like evaluations and trainings so the fee structure differs,” Ellen explained.

At the 2013 FIGT conference, Ellen was just getting the word out about Sea Change for the first time. At the 2014 conference, she had an Ignite session and a Concurrent session, where she shared her insights about creating her own company and the joy it has brought her. “It feels like a blessing and like it was meant to be,” she said.

Some of the most important lessons she learned while creating Sea Change Mentoring are to believe in yourself, set the bar high and also to ask others for help. “You can’t be an entrepreneur without depending on the generosity of others and their faith in you,” she advised.

She truly believes it’s never one person against all odds and that the only thing keeping you from achieving your dreams is you.

Her final piece of advice was simply: “Anything is possible.”

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