Western News – Mentor program key for thriving international students, grads

As a former international student Roberto Hernández-Enriquez, MSc’02, first came to Western, he knew he needed human contact and needed help adjusting to a foreign country, but he was ‘very, very shy’.

“I wanted to meet people, make friends, and get help getting around town and campus,” Hernandez-Enriquez said. “English is not my mother tongue. I studied English at university and made small trips to other countries, but this was the first time I spoke English full-time.”

It was then that Hernandez-Enriquez found the International Peer Guide program, a powerful student mentoring program at Western that has helped new international students succeed and helped high school students build connections, friendships and career skills.

“Participating in the peer guide program has helped me feel less lonely,” Hernandez-Enriquez said.

celebrate it 30th anniversary That year, the International Peer Guide program was developed to provide mentoring and resources to students from abroad, and it quickly grew into a community, offering countless opportunities for the more than 5,000 students who participated to have a laugh, help to offer or accept, and to find a sense of belonging to Western.

“The Peer Guide program was my home at Western,” he said Rachel Crowe, BSc’00, a former peer guide and former program coordinator. “When you come from overseas and adapt, you are so far from home. There are many differences. Sometimes it can be difficult to connect with people who haven’t had this experience, so connecting with someone who is familiar with what you are going through is hugely important.

“The program also does a lot of practical things, but the fact that there is so much emphasis on building meaningful connections between peer guides, between peer guides and peers, and with staff, makes it as successful as it is.”

The program was created in 1992 and led by then-International Student Coordinator Rose Aquino, a Registered Psychotherapist who currently serves as a Mental Health Advisor in Western’s Wellness and Wellbeing Division. New international undergraduate and graduate students, called peers, are encouraged to sign up to be matched with a senior high school peer guide who is trained to help them transition to Canada and the West.

The focus on community and the importance of providing participants with a welcoming and safe space to learn together has contributed to the program’s popularity and “magic” over the years.

“To me it seems like a hidden gem or best kept secret on campus. It’s an amazing group of students willing to help students make the transition to Western,” said Fabiana Tepedino, BACS’02, Western International Programs Coordinator and former peer guide herself.

“We take the students’ lead in providing the support they need. Some students just need to know someone is there to answer questions, and others are looking for a mentor or friend. International students who are peers often become peer guides the following year. People don’t seem to want to leave the program once they join.”

While the program aims to provide newly arrived international students with support in their cultural adjustment and community connection by engaging with current domestic and international students, it also provides opportunities for high school undergraduate and graduate students for intercultural engagement at the local level and for cross- development of cultural skills.

“When we developed the program it was clear that the new international student population had unique needs that could be better addressed by designing support programs with cultural adaptation/transitions and diversity in mind – a rarity at the time. This was long before there were initiatives for justice, diversity and inclusion, and anti-oppression,” Aquino said.

Starting with a “small but mighty” team of 10 peer guides and 40 peers in the first year, the program has grown to more than 100 peer guides and more than 600 international student peers per year.

“Our peer guide recruitment and training process is intense, yet provides the team with unique opportunities to learn, share and connect,” said Sandra Pehilj, BA’97, International Student Advisor and former program coordinator. “There are three-day training courses on topics such as cross-cultural communication, psychological services to support different cultures and backgrounds, and understanding microaggression and discrimination.”

Confidentiality and liability are also valued. “Students are trained to help within the limits – they know how much they can offer and they stay within what the position allows. We try to set them up as best as possible to be successful. We give them love and support and they pass it on to the students who need to look after them.”

For many previous participants – both peer guides and the peers they support – the program played a huge role in shaping their lives, helping them succeed in their academic journey at Western, become global citizens and build valuable skills.

“The Peer Guide program has had a significant impact on my career,” he said Georgette Stubbs, BMOS’11, a career counseling entrepreneur and former peer guide. “It taught me skills around program design, how to support people from all over the world adjusting to a new place, how to build a community and manage projects, and how to help others who might not even know the questions, which they should ask in a situation.”

As the program celebrates its anniversary and the many accomplishments of its participants, the emphasis on continuing and celebrating the close-knit community it creates remains a top priority.

“As peers and peer guides, we are part of a big family. I always felt relieved after a full day of classes or in the middle of exams because I knew I could go to a peer guide meeting,” he said Jimmy Li, HBA’17. “Staff brought treats, people shared stories, just chatted and relaxed. That was very important to me, it gave me the feeling of belonging, right in the middle of what was happening when I was a student.”

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