September 28, 2012
By Diane Hageman
Excitement and trepidation were likely two emotions that filled the air as a group of international students left the hustle and bustle of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and made their way to two picturesque campuses in Central Minnesota.
Instead of stepping out of the vehicle wondering where to go next, they were greeted enthusiastically by a group of College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University international student mentors.
That was the scene for 32 CSB and 28 SJU incoming first-year international students as they arrived to begin classes at the end of August. For them, it's not just a vacation; it's an opportunity to learn in a whole new culture.
"This year, our first-year international students came from 17 different countries with the largest groups coming from China, Japan and the Bahamas," said Nichole Matuska, assistant director of the international student program office at CSB and SJU. "Our mentors work with eight to 10 mentees and we try to pair them with incoming students from their own countries or nearby."
Anthonique Hanna, a senior economics major from Nassau, Bahamas, and Lichuan (Tony) Liang, a senior economics and mathematics double-major from Yingkou Liaoning, China, are two of the seven mentors Matuska oversees in the international student mentor program.
"I wanted to be a mentor because of the wonderful experience I had when I first came here. My mentor was from the Caribbean so it was really easy and comfortable," said Hanna, who is in her second year as a mentor. "I also know what it's like coming here and feeling lonely."
The mentors had all made contact with their mentees before they arrived on campus so the relationships were already started before they met. "The students want to really embrace the experience and they know we are here for them," Hanna said.
"My mentor was so hospitable and I have the type of personality who wants to help people as best as I can," Liang said. "This job is perfect for me."
It's not uncommon for colleges to encourage students to reach out and welcome incoming international students, but few colleges have a program as structured as the one at CSB and SJU, according to Matuska. One reason is that the program is structured as a work-study experience. The students are paid and have an extensive set of expectations that are laid out by Matuska and Lisa Scott, the academic adviser for all international students.
The busiest time for the mentors is the fall semester, particularly at the beginning of the year. They are there to greet their mentees, assist them as they settle into the residence halls and accompany them as assigned during orientation.
"We have a couple of days of orientation with just the international students in an exclusive environment," Hanna said. "Before they meet and mix with the American students, we can coach them on what to expect, particularly regarding the cultural differences."
Other duties range from giving their mentees a tour of St. Joseph and setting up individual meetings once a semester to sending birthday greetings and well wishes during finals week. All of their activities are recorded and reported back to Matuska and Scott.
The program has been deemed successful in a variety of ways. The first-year students have responded very favorably to the structure of the program and their mentors.
"I think having this program is pretty smart. They gave us someone we can talk to, to trust," said Addafini Abdoulaye, who hails from Cameroon. "I absolutely adore my mentor, Anthonique. I have never met anyone quite like her before."
Survey feedback from the first-year students has been strong. When questioned during fall semester 2011, 45 of 48 students who filled out the survey rated their mentors either "very helpful" (31) or "helpful" (14).
Also, retention of the international students from the first to second year (the most common time for someone to drop out or transfer schools) is 88 percent, identical to the total first-to-second year class retention ratio for all students at CSB and SJU.
The structure of the program has also made it a popular work-study job choice, particularly for international students.
"Everyone wants to work in our office," Hanna said. "It's extremely competitive. The students really look up to us. I feel it's a good résumé booster because I have worked with so many different people from different cultures.""I believe this experience will prove to employers that I am a good team player," Liang said. "I already found it beneficial when I was working in meetings with clients during my internship last summer."