Potential benefits of peer mentoring for supporting international students in Higher Education
Leask (2009) suggests the globalization of higher education requires more efficient engagement and interaction with students in all universities. However, international students often experience a range of adjustment difficulties including isolation (Riche and Jacklin 2007; Sawir et al. 2007), language proficiency and limited support networks.
Mentoring and peer mentoring programs
Roberts (2000) argued that the essential attributes of mentoring include helping, teaching, learning, reflecting, supporting, coaching and sponsoring the process. Previous studies, including the work of Terrion and Leonard (2007), and Crisp and Cruz (2009), highlight that new mentoring roles are being created where more experienced students are influential in helping less experienced learners develop. Their findings indicate that peer mentoring for international students provides an approach that facilitates communication and enables those who have already progressed in their studies to improve the academic performances of new learners and assists in supporting their cultural adjustment. Experienced students can offer peer advice on any aspect of study including academic writing skills, details of the nature of the subject being taught, provide help with approaches to assessment, support with language difficulties and offer a social framework for studies.
Shamini (2014) recommends that when implementing or designing a scheme, there are several considerations that should be made in relation to its aims and purposes. The first is that the program must recognize the diversity of the cultural and academic backgrounds of international students and support them during their integration into the new lifestyle and culture associated with their new academic surroundings. The most fundamental requirement of an international student is that they must actively participate in, and be willing to cope with, new challenges in this unfamiliar academic environment. Therefore, mentoring programs must recognize the difficulties and vulnerabilities that international students find themselves confronted with. A primary aim of such a program may be to prevent the homesickness, isolation, and intimidation that an international student may experience. Another key consideration is that both peer mentors and academic staff work together to ensure a high-quality education is provided in terms of personal and professional development. Whilst the academic staff and peer mentor relationships can assist in the initial assimilation into the university, it is important that these supportive services are continued throughout the international students’ engagement with the university. In addition, Ragavan (2012) suggests that offering support and training for the peer mentors increases the likelihood that they will have the general transferable skills necessary to solve the variety of issues they may encounter whilst mentoring. Shamini (2014) advocates the development of a community for international students, suggesting this construction of a group identity will lead to the cultivation of an academic environment that encourages mutual support and collaborative learning amongst the international student community.
Benefits and limitations
When reviewing the evaluations of existing international student peer mentoring programs, most mentees appear to be positive about their experiences (Holley and Caldwell 2011; Clayton 2011). Reports by Chester et al. (2009) suggest that international students felt supported when participating in mentoring programs that facilitate integration into international communities of students who share similar interests and worries. Chester et al. (2009) also maintain that effective mentoring programs assist international students to access the curriculum, and other learning opportunities. Although not all universities have mentoring programs, most utilise tutorials as a means of reinforcing the introduction to a course and the development of foundational skills. Peer mentoring could be used to reinforce this learning, for example, Chester et al. (2009) found that peer-mentoring with a specific focus on scientific writing and referencing proved hugely beneficial for first-year psychology students. In addition, Holley and Caldwell (2011) found that the social interaction provided by peer mentoring proved invaluable in terms of providing important coping strategies for the cultural adjustment of their international students. Clayton (2011) developed a peer mentoring program for international students and found that the two main positive benefits reported by participants were an improvement in their English proficiency and the development of friendships with other native students. Outhred and Chester (2013) also completed a review of peer-pairing programs in Australia and concluded that they produced positive outcomes for international students. Here, again, the mentors who assist with the transition experience can facilitate cultural interaction through community building and peer-networking. In 2014, Ragavan held focus group discussions with 8 mentors and 17 mentees (all participants in a UK law school) and concluded that the ongoing support international students received through mentoring was beneficial for their transition.
However, peer-mentoring programs are not without their limitations and challenges. Mentoring is a time-consuming process and without effective prior training it is unlikely to achieve the expected or desired outcomes for either the mentor or the mentee (Colvin and Ashman 2010; Mee-Lee and Bush 2003). Also, the diversity of international students creates a range of different cultural and academic backgrounds, so mentoring programs must be designed in a variety of ways to meet these needs Outhred and Chester (2013) found that there is a gap between international students’ perception of what assistance is available, and the reality of the provision. Also, maintaining the high rate of attendance needed by the mentees is difficult. Whilst the most effective approach for support is through face-to-face meetings, this will only work if the mentees attends. In addition, creating interesting conversations and useful information for each meeting can provide challenges for some mentors. Finally, according to Bryant (2005) evaluating the potential success of a mentoring program is, in itself, extremely difficult.
International students are often confronted with a range of problems on arrival in a new country. Peer mentorship schemes have been developed and implemented in many universities to support international students with their study, and the adaptation into a new culture. These programs receive a great deal of positive feedback from both mentors and mentees. Face-to-face mentoring appears to be the preferred and most successful method, particularly when the mentors and mentees have the same interests and perhaps encounter the same problems. At such times they understand and communicate better (Ragavan 2014). This would suggest that, with the allocation of time, money, resources and training, a peer mentoring program may prove very beneficial for integrating international students into university life.
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Senior Lecturer and Teacher Fellow, with Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy Anne specialises in the English Education and Higher Education Systems.