Founder’s Story

A Homecoming:
The Story Behind Sea Change Mentoring and Its Founder

My parents are from New York City but I was born in Delaware and raised in Japan, Connecticut and Singapore. Japan was the place I lived the longest from ages seven to thirteen. When I graduated from the Singapore American School, I returned to the US for college while my folks stayed overseas. I was excited to be back in the US and didn’t expect to have too many challenges adjusting, given that the US was my own country. But about 3 months into the experience, I started to become depressed. That depression would last seven years. Depression made it hard to concentrate in school, impossible to sleep. I felt alienated from my American peers and had difficulty forming intimate long-term friendships and relationships. All the while my parents were on another continent, my safety nets and support systems far, far away. When I first realized that I had a problem, I reached out to my friends around the world who had returned to their “home” countries for university. It turned out that almost every single one was having a hard time. Some were struggling the way that I was, others had turned to drug abuse, a handful dropped out of college and in the worse case I learned that an old friend committed suicide. When I got a call the second semester of my freshman year that another dear friend had attempted suicide, I thought to myself, “Some day, I’m going to come back to the expat community and counsel teens to cope better with this transition home.” I became a teacher and counselor at first, working in the inner-city public schools of Washington DC and New York City but I always had the intention of some day going overseas to work in the international schools.

Seventeen years after I graduated from the Singapore American School, I was at home in New York City watching the news in horror. A powerful earthquake had unleashed a tsunami in Japan, killing over 15,000 people. I watched the horrible images and sobbed. I told my husband “I don’t know why I am so upset. It’s not like I’m Japanese!” He looked at me, shocked, and said, “Ellen, Japan was your childhood home.” That moment shook me awake and made me realize that I had compartmentalized my personal experiences overseas because the loss of those “homes” and my inability to communicate that loss was too painful to bear.

A couple days later, I was emailing back and forth with Ms. Ofstedal, a former teacher of mine at The International School of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo. The conversation had started with how everyone was doing and what we could do to help the victims in Japan. Yet, before I knew it, we were talking about the students that attended Sacred Heart. Ms Ofstedal said, “Do you know that a lot of our students have a very difficult time when they graduate and have to move on?” I told her I did and we both shared stories. She said that she noticed I worked for a youth mentoring organization. (At the time I was working at iMentor in New York City.) She asked me if I thought mentoring would be helpful for her students. And then she asked me to help her think of a way to bring mentoring to students there.

That led to many late nights as I designed a program I felt would work best in an international school. A couple weeks into it, it dawned on me that this was my moment. I had sworn that one day I would come back to the expat community and help kids develop better coping skills and adjust their expectations for returning home. The time had to be now. Months later, I resigned from my job and started Sea Change Mentoring.

After working for 17 years in adolescent development, I have a good handle on what works for kids and what doesn’t. I have been a huge advocate of youth mentoring as a particularly effective strategy for helping teens reach their potential. It is a well-researched prevention tool that is particularly helpful to teens in transition and has been proven to help teens avoid risky behavior, learn to manage their emotions and to connect them with a broader network and opportunities. In other words, it is a perfect strategy for expat teens.

Having a mentor can be the key to ensuring our kids apply the experience and skills they picked up from living overseas towards being successful in school, competitive in the job market and well adjusted in their adulthood. After all, the experience of living overseas should only make our kids smarter, more well-rounded and successful young adults.

Doing this work has been so rewarding, a sort of “coming-home” of my own. Global youth have such rich experiences and they pick up skills and perspectives that can help everyone around them. My vision for the future is a world where the challenges of being cross-cultural are managed well thanks to strong sources of support so that we can all benefit from these young people’s unique global insight.