Helping international students connect with mentors

Helping international students connect with mentors

Higher education institutions are increasingly catering to students with a dizzying range of interests, goals, and languages. A supportive mentor, such as an older student, a professor, or another staff member, can play a vital role in a student’s long-term success. But how can academic advisers and other counsellors help the right international students connect with the right local mentors? Education professionals at European universities explain how they’ve helped create mentoring matchups that work.

Global perspectives

Moving to a new country brings plenty of challenges to international students, making it crucial for mentors and other counsellors to consider each student’s difficulties and guidance needs. “There’s always a learning curve for international students,” says Ridwanah Gurjee, volunteer coordinator at the University of Central Lancashire. “So a global perspective is very valuable in helping these students engage with mentors who come from different cultures and communities.”

Some experts recommend connecting prospective students with older undergraduates or graduate students early on in the application process. “University websites can be differently designed between countries, and it can be challenging for international students to fill out their applications, or to find information related to the courses they want to apply for,” says Christophe Lambing, an international doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. “When I first applied for a course in the UK, I had to ask for help from a native speaker to navigate the website and complete my registration form.” Issues like these might not even occur to an admissions counsellor who doesn’t hail from another country or culture – which is why an older student may be the ideal mentor for an incoming student. Practical help in a student’s native language can help the student overcome a great deal of culture shock and smooth over many minor difficulties in the processes of intake and settling in.

Local logistics

An international student’s first mentor doesn’t necessarily need to be a professional who’s working in the student’s field of study. A student mentor who’s experienced and confident at navigating the university’s ins and outs may be more helpful than an older expert. Aside from obvious issues like language barriers, university policies and practices tend to differ based on the traditions and politics of their countries – as does the red tape surrounding housing and long-term employment. “The list of accommodation provided by universities is often limited, and the rent is often high,” Lambing says. “A mentor can provide the student will practical tips, such as the contact numbers of letting agencies or landlords.” A mentor who’s ‘on the ground’ locally will also find it easier to coordinate meetings and other dialogues with the student, whether they take place electronically or in person. “Time zone differences can present a major issue for mentors and mentees who live on opposite sides of the globe,” Gurjee says, but once the student is settled in his or her new country, a local mentor should be much easier to reach than a mentor back in the student’s home country. This kind of coordination is crucial for effective mentorships, Gurjee explains, because “electronic meetings should always be balanced with face-to-face interaction. That personal connection is what makes a mentorship work.”

Common ground

Beyond the logistical availability of a mentor who’s local, some shared interests and hobbies between the mentor and mentee can help cement the relationship into a friendship. Even more central to a mentorship’s long-term success, though, is the mentor’s genuine desire to provide support and guidance. The mentor’s empathy for the student’s challenges is a step in the right direction, but mentorships that last tend to be built on deeper common ground. “A good mentor must have the passion to stay involved in mentoring,” Gurjee says. “The mentor should be connecting with students because he or she cares about making a positive difference in those people’s lives.” This is true of any student mentorship – but it’s especially vital for international students, who can have some initial trouble forming friendships across cultural boundaries.  A compassionate mentor can provide a point of contact for a student who may feel lost at times. “An international student may feel more comfortable contacting a mentor rather than reaching out to an academic staff member,” Lambing says. “A mentor who shares the student’s language and culture can also limit the risk of misunderstanding between the prospective student and the university staff.” This doesn’t mean that the mentor has to stay on call 24 hours a day – just that he or she feels enough of a connection with the mentee that the two of them enjoy solving problems as a team.

An international student’s academic ease depends heavily on how comfortable he or she feels in the host country.  A mentor who’s supportive and knowledgeable can help a student stay focused from admission to graduation, and simplify obstacles along the way. As the experts explained above, there’s no single magic formula for helping international students connect with mentors, but education professionals who listen to these students’ needs can often think of at least one or two people who’d be ideal at providing guidance through each transition.

Author: Ben Thomas, The Riley Guide.