The Guiding Stars

Mentorship programs at U.S. colleges and universities, like at the University of California, Berkeley, help new and transfer students navigate their new school environment.

The transition to college is a big adjustment for all students, whether they are in their home country or abroad. Recognizing this fact, U.S. universities and colleges sponsor mentorship programs to help incoming first-year and transfer students navigate their new school environment.

“Facing the challenges of academic competition, finding a new circle of friends and deciphering the mysteries of the place they now call ‘home’ can be daunting for any student and, particularly, for international students,” says MinhAn Nguyen, coordinator of the International Student Peer Mentorship Program at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley).

The impetus for the program was the university’s 2011 International Students’ Needs Assessment, which revealed the need for targeted support for incoming international students. For example, an international student might bring a cultural view of a professor or attitude toward counseling that could prevent him or her from realizing that it’s okay to ask for help, or make him or her hesitant to seek counseling if it’s not considered normal in the home country, says Nguyen. 

Now in its fourth year, the International Student Peer Mentorship Program is delivering on its mission to support international students’ academic and personal adjustment to the university through peer mentoring throughout their first semester. Annually, the program serves over 300 incoming students from 37 countries, significantly increasing the likelihood of them staying through graduation.

Indispensable to the program are the more than 30 carefully-selected student volunteers who serve as mentors. During the summer, experienced students reach out to incoming international students to answer their questions about campus life and set the stage for helping them through their first semester. About 10 incoming students are matched with one mentor to create small communities of support, based on shared interests, passions or academics. The mentors contact their mentees through weekly one-on-one conversations, emails and texts, and offer activities designed to connect them to campus, and help them survive and thrive in the college.

Initial training for mentors focus on communication skills and practice with probable scenarios they might experience. The program also equips them with knowledge of resources available to mentees, by inviting international student counselors or advisers as well as staff members of university health and career centers to speak at monthly mentor meetings.

“Mentors also learn about how mentees, often top students at their high school, can become insecure about their ability to succeed academically [imposter syndrome] and could benefit from counseling support. We send mentees a weekly ‘Be Your Best Bear’ [in reference to Oski the Bear, the University of California mascot] email, with guidance tips like speak up in class, take advantage of office hours, follow these research tips on using resources and avoid plagiarism, and other useful reminders for first-year students,” explains Nguyen.

She feels honored to work with mentors who are dedicated to giving back despite their own academic load. “We find that each year, one-fifth of our mentors were previously mentees in the program,” says Nguyen. “As noted by an international student’s comment in our mid-year survey, ‘I learned a lot from my mentor helping me throughout my freshman year. She made me more confident in my major choice and let me see clearly what opportunities I have at UC Berkeley. I want to be a peer mentor and help other freshmen get accustomed to their college life and make friends with them.’ ” Nguyen adds that her office comes in contact with many student assistants hired by the University of California who list their peer mentor experience on their résumés.

She asserts the “fun factor” is equally important to an international student’s social adjustment to college. She mentions a variety of monthly activities offered by the International Student Peer Mentorship Program in addition to the kickoff pizza party in August and the fall community volunteering, “through the Berkeley Project, a campus-wide community service project, which gives students a sense of what’s out there in the community.”

“In addition, students can go ice skating, attend mentor-initiated events and participate in some of our ‘homegrown’ team competitions. This year, we created some pretty silly activities like the backward coin toss, and egg-and-spoon relay races, based on YouTube’s ‘Minute to Win It’ challenges. Teamwork and the promise of an ice cream reward forced participants to get out of their comfort zone and enjoy just being college kids,” says Nguyen.

She admits the challenge of maintaining the level of student engagement in their program events as the semester progresses. “I find the tremendous participation in our August pizza party icebreaker dwindles until our final formal program group activity. I know it’s partly due to the preparation for finals, but I’ve realized it also means mentees have adjusted, made connections and formed new communities. And, I guess, that means they have successfully transitioned to life at UC Berkeley—which is our primary goal.”


Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.