In the past year, international students across Canada have faced COVID-19-related travel restrictions, visa delays and time zone difficulties in addition to the cultural challenges that come with pursuing studies in a different country. When planning for the 2020-2021 academic year, Ryerson University’s International Student Support and Tri-Mentoring Program made sure to be especially vigilant about incoming international graduate students. Anticipating that the experience of remote learning would drastically impact how connected students felt to their studies, the university, and each other, we aimed to create opportunities for personal connections and interaction. We found an answer in mentorship.
Within Ryerson’s Student Life and Learning Support department, International Student Support and the Tri-Mentoring Program leveraged our skill sets and resources to create a pilot mentorship program for international graduate students. The foundation of the pilot was built on the Tri-Mentoring Program’s undergraduate peer-to-peer mentorship model. Over the summer, we reached out to current graduate students and recent alumni by email to encourage them to sign up as mentors. Knowing that the first cohort would be small, we used broad similarities to match mentors and mentees (such as similar geographical location or same faculty of study) based on the preferences indicated in their sign-up forms. Most mentees preferred to be matched with a student in the same or similar program of study.
Through weekly planning meetings, regular outreach to prospective mentors, training sessions and many hours spent looking for the “perfect match,” we launched the pilot in September 2020, just three months after dreaming it up. It comprised of 11 mentors supporting 19 mentees. The participants represented five of the six faculties of study within Ryerson’s Yeates School of Graduate Studies (YSGS) and hailed from the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Africa.
We introduced students to each other over email and encouraged them to keep in touch on at least a biweekly basis through the Tri-Mentoring Program’s online community hosted on PeopleGrove, a mentorship program platform. Students could also use other communication methods of their choice for the purpose of the pilot. Mentors supported mentees with questions regarding their academic, professional and personal responsibilities, and offered a listening ear as they both navigated remote learning. Eighty percent of the participants who answered our end-of-program feedback survey agreed or strongly agreed that participating in this initiative helped them feel more connected to other international graduate students. “This was an amazing experience for me, and I’m looking forward to continuing it next semester,” one student shared. “In terms of being more connected with the Ryerson community, this program was entirely successful. I have made a good friendship with one of my mentees whose life situation is similar to [mine].”
Moving forward, we intend to offer mentorship opportunities to all graduate students at Ryerson. Some participants also suggested creating closer mentorship matches so students could be partnered with peers in their program of study, while others indicated needing more thorough training in preparation for the mentorship. Once we are able to safely return to campus, we plan to use a mix of in-person and virtual interactions to allow different ways for students to connect with each other. We aim to create closer and more successful matches through larger recruitment efforts and more immersive training sessions.
Our objective in bringing this pilot to life was to support new international graduate students in getting the most out of their grad school experience. We sought to provide a soft landing into Canadian higher education at a time when seemingly nothing was normal. As the creators of this mentorship program, we have something in common with the students who participated in this pilot – we too have yet to meet in-person. We empathize with the challenging environment of remote campuses and are motivated by the need to create connection for those working and learning in these virtual spaces.
This column is coordinated through the Internationalization of Student Affairs Community of Practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact [email protected].