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This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
When Wei Guo packed for the 10-plus-hour flight from China to Bentley, he brought along some reminders of home. At U.S. Customs he was pressed to explain the “suspicious” jars of pickles and bags of seasoning in his suitcase.
“I immediately found a big gap between the Test of English as a Foreign Language and real life,” says Guo, who had scored well on the TOEFL, a standard test for language proficiency. “Situations like this definitely do not appear on the exam.”
His anxiety and uncertainty are common among international students, as they start college far from family and friends. Bentley’s International Peer Adviser (IPA) program is designed to ease the culture shock.
The IPAs, who currently number 16, bring a high level of authenticity to the program. Hailing from Argentina, China, Colombia, Honduras, India, Pakistan and elsewhere around the globe, they forge connections that often last well past their international classmates’ first months at Bentley.
IPAs reach out even before new graduate and undergraduate students arrive from their far-flung homelands. The early relationship building – by email, phone and social media such as Facebook – is critical.
“I was more relaxed having answers about where to find housing and how to select courses,” explains Guo, who is pursuing an MS in Accountancy. “It made me confident about the transition.”
Having a peer as the first line of communication helps builds trust, says Papa Sarr, director of the Center for International Students and Scholars (CISS). “As an extension of our office, advisers communicate that we go beyond immigration issues to provide support with cultural adjustment.”
While students’ transition may kick off with a “honeymoon” phase — the exhilaration of taking in a new culture — homesickness is likely to set in.
“It can be as simple as missing the aromas of your local cuisine,” says Sarr, recalling his own experience as a Senegal native living in the U.S. “There is often a feeling of a broken connection to the comforts of home.”
That’s where IPAs provide essential backing. They introduce advisees to student organizations, host informal dinners and outings, and stay accessible to help create a new support network. Mentoring remains strong in the next few months.
“As I came across new things, I knew that my peer adviser would be there,” says Rodrigo Cofino ’14 of Guatemala. “She was constantly aware of my well-being.”
Takeaway from the program is evident, even inspirational.
“There is an old saying in China that ‘a drop of water in need, shall be returned with a spring in deed.’ I benefited from the IPA program, and I would like to do the same for incoming students,” says Guo, who is advising a group from China, India, Spain, Romania, Colombia, Brazil and Nigeria.
The range of students assigned to each adviser is deliberate.
“We encourage mixing of cultures from the very beginning,” says CISS Assistant Director Tana Ruegamer. “Our hope is that once they make acquaintances with people from another country, it will be even easier to make an American friend.”
Adds Sarr: “We do not want to create little islands of students from different countries. It would defeat the purpose.”
The program’s heart lies in the experience and commitment that advisers bring to the table as international students themselves.
“Our IPAs have firsthand knowledge about transitioning to a new culture as they’ve all been through it,” observes CISS’s Barbara Kluesner, who helps develop, train and supervise the group.
“I know how hard it is to leave your home country, family, friends, culture and everything you have known to start fresh in a new country,” says Akhil Chimnani ’12, an IPA who came to Bentley from India. “I want to be there unconditionally and let students know that Bentley will be their home and not just a dorm room for the next four years.”
The Yawkey Foundations have recognized Bentley University’s longstanding commitment to service-learning and awarded the university $500,000 to educate students to effectively lead nonprofit organizations and expand student efforts to help community groups.