Cross-Cultural Peer Mentor Program benefits international, American students

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With firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing new international students during their first semester on campus, Nan Zhao ’15 (Beijing, China) jumped at the opportunity to serve as one of Marietta College’s first Cross-Cultural Peer Mentors.

“When I came here, there were no peer mentors for me,” says Zhao, who is an Information Systems major. “I learned so many things on my own. I can help others learn, too.”

The Cross-Cultural Peer Mentor Program is finishing its first full year at Marietta; and, according to this semester’s mentors, it is making a major difference in the lives of both mentors and their mentees.

“It is seriously one of the greatest experiences I could have ever had on this campus,” says Margaret Price ’16 (Columbus, Ohio), who is one of this semester’s four mentors. She is an Advertising/Public Relations major pursuing a minor in Asian Studies. “What I’ve learned from my mentees is just how brave they are to come here from their home country, knowing no one, not really understanding the culture and working so hard to be a part of this community.”

In the fall, there were 40 incoming international students and eight mentors to help them adjust to their new setting. This spring, 25 new international students arrived and were helped by the four current mentors: Price, Zhao, Syreeta Osborne ’16 (Middletown, Ohio) and Jin Kai Wang ’15 (Beijing, China).

Xiaotian Li, Coordinator for the Office of Diversity & Inclusion, says the program helps incoming international students by pairing them with mentors.

“Most international students come here with no preparation,” Li says.  “They don’t know how big of an impact cultural differences can have on their experience. For example, the education systems in China and the Middle East are very different from the U.S.; they don’t necessarily understand how to select courses. Social adjustment is another big challenge for international students, making friends in the new culture is different and sometimes that can be difficult.”

From Orientation Week through the end of their first semester at Marietta, the new international students receive their mentor’s guidance on a wide range of issues, from navigating life at Marietta to registering for classes to getting involved on campus.

“Our first Walmart trip was probably the most memorable thing for me as a mentor,” says Osborne, who is an International Business and Asian Studies double major. “Marge and I had a pretty large group of Chinese students and their language skills were pretty varied. One of the students was looking for something he didn’t know the English word for, so he had to describe it through gestures.”

It didn’t take long for Osborne to figure out that the student wanted a box of tissues. That type of experience will prove invaluable for her next spring when she studies abroad in Taiwan.

“I took this mentoring job because I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone,” Osborne says. “I am really introverted so I had to train myself to be extroverted when I’m in this role, especially because in the beginning I am pretty much my mentees’ sole connection to campus. Watching how they have to adapt and what they need to learn has given me a big head start for my semester in Taiwan.”

Wang, who is a Chemistry major from Beijing, meets his mentees once a week for a scheduled visit, but also socializes with them as friends.

“I wanted to help others,” he says. “It was very hard when I first came.”

He struggled to find friends and was hesitant to latch onto others who offered to help him become acclimated to American life because he didn’t want to be viewed as bothersome.

Wang adjusted to life at Marietta, made some friends and made a commitment to get involved with campus activities. He currently is a mentor and also a chemistry tutor.

The mentors enjoy developing friendships with the incoming international students.

“When I first started as a mentor, I thought it would be a good opportunity to help others,” Price says. “But I ended up growing so much more as a person.”