Paul Chin was one of the lucky international students who had family in Toronto to help him settle in and navigate the city when he moved from the Cayman Islands in 2008. His education, however, didn’t make for such smooth sailing.
A few months into the first year of his illustration program at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD), Chin was depressed. The banality of mandatory programs that comprised first year was getting to him. He began to question being a part of the program, worried he had made a colossal mistake.
Luckily, Chin had enrolled in OCAD’s student mentor program, and could turn to his mentor for advice.
“It was really beneficial to me, just to be able to ask somebody how things work aside from the general gist that you get from the website or the official rigmarole,” Chin said. “You actually get that first-hand perspective from somebody else.”
Assured that things would get better after first year, which Chin, 22, now laughs off as an “animal of its own,” he stuck with the program. Now in his fourth year, he hasn’t regretted the decision once and has signed up as a mentor since second year.
Chin was one of what has now grown to be over 2,000 students across Toronto enrolled as a mentee in a program at their institution. It’s a small percentage of international students — about 10 per cent — but institutions are trying to up the numbers, and those who do enroll get the added benefit of advice from a peer rather than just faculty at a one-day orientation.
Mentorship programs vary from one institution to another, but they all aim at assigning different numbers of mentees to a mentor — international or domestic — who provides advice and is their personal go-to for information on academics, university life and the city for the semester or the year. Mentors go through rigorous training and have to fill out monthly progress reports on what they have done with their mentee.
Chin recalls one mentee that stood out to him the most. She came to Toronto last August from China, a week before classes started, with no place to live and no idea of where to go. Chin had been in contact with her via email through July, and met up with her at the university to go house-hunting.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of variety and a lot of the places we saw were either really far or really not up to par,” he said. “And because Mandarin was her first language, she felt very unconfident in her ability to deal with these things on her own.”
Scrambling to find something good while all the leases were quickly being bought up by so many other students moving into the area, Chin finally came across an apartment in Chinatown, close enough to the campus that the girl, whose name he could not disclose, didn’t have to worry about figuring out transit just yet. Chin also helped her setup a bank account at the CIBC down the street, where they spoke Mandarin.
OCAD’s program is open to all students, and each mentor is assigned five mentees. But when Chin enrolled as a mentor in 2009, the program started advertising more to international students. According to Susan Kemp, coordinator of international student services at OCAD, the university realized the importance of giving international students a “first point of contact… when they get to school.”
The University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) runs a similar program. Their First Year Experience Program (FEP) is also open to all students, but has a separately-run international section.
Every incoming international student is automatically matched with a mentor upon acceptance. Rather than a few days of orientation, the International Student Centre runs a Settling in the City program as part of the FEP. It runs three weeks, starting at the beginning of September, and is followed up by the mentorship program that runs through the year.
Andrew Alzaga, a second-year management student, was one of three students who organized the Settling in the City portion. He came to Canada from the Philippines as a permanent resident three years ago and still considers himself a “clueless” newcomer, saying this put him in a good position to help.
“They’re not simply studying here, they’re also here to go around…and experience the events around the city,” Alzaga said.
He and two other students joined the venture as part of a work-study program. They were responsible for coming up with the information booklets given to international students as well as the activities.
Information booklets were packed with advice on bank accounts, cell phone bundles, Toronto transit and grocery stores, especially those selling cultural foods. Students were taken to the Scarborough Town Centre on hired buses, where they could set up their bank and cell phone accounts and learn about the stores available.
Alzaga and his peers got nothing but positive feedback from the students, many of which still run up to say hello when they see them on campus.
“Seeing the faces of these international students…the sign of relief, and realizing I…was able to help someone who was definitely going to have a hard time adjusting their life here [was great],” he said.
UTSC’s mentorship program runs like any other, with upper-year students matched with mentees mainly based on area of study. Their mentors usually have about 10-12 mentees. This year, according to Kendel Chitolie, coordinator of international student services and programs, the FEP has over 500 international mentees and 38 international mentors.
The focus, Chitolie says, is not just on helping students understand the school or the city, but making sure they interact with others and ease out of feeling homesick.
“We don’t want them to be in their own silo,” he said. “[So it’s] connecting them to events on campus, using academic resources, connecting them to external community partners [and] their home consulates.”
All mentorship programs encourage a strictly professional relationship between mentors and mentees, with most stating they prefer meetings take place on campus. York University’s buddy program, however, arranges several events to take the groups off campus and show them a taste of Canadian culture. Most recently, mentors and their buddies went out to a Toronto Marlies hockey game. Snow tubing and meet-and-greets are scheduled for next semester.
“They can do anything where their interests lie,” said Zalma Sahar, the international student programs assistant at York. “It’s good [for them] to learn what’s new, what’s expected from them, especially when the culture could be very different, and this way getting to talk to students who are at the same level helps them out.”
Regardless of their format, these programs give international students the chance to understand their institution and city from the perspective of someone they may be more receptive to. Most institutions find that mentees often want to give back and sign up as mentors — Chitolie sees a lot of familiar faces from last year, and Sahar says more than half the current mentors were buddies.
It’s the main reason Chin has signed up every year, willing to help however he can. He is still in touch with the girl from China he helped settle, albeit sporadically.
“Eventually they begin to gain some independence, which is the point because they’re figuring things out,” he said.
“[But] I just think, ‘If not for another person who knows the city and the process, then what would someone like [that girl] have done?’”