The importance of peer mentoring and assistance in ensuring international students get the most out of their studies was highlighted at the recent ISANA and Australian and New Zealand Student Services Association joint conference on the Gold Coast, Australia.
The conference, which was themed Widening Perspectives of Student Success, brought together over 400 delegates from Australia and New Zealand to discuss student services for domestic and international students, with an ongoing discussion point revolving around the role of peer networks, especially for foreign students.
In her presentation on students seeking academic help, ISANA NZ executive and PhD candidate Sherrie Lee said that often international students rely on other international students to broker information related to their studies.
“Brokers, for these newly arrived migrants, they’re the ones that transfer resources because of barriers in language and culture,” she said.
In particular, Lee, whose doctoral thesis looks at the ways Chinese students seek assistance, said international students felt more comfortable engaging with someone with a similar background than a domestic student.
By engaging with another student, rather than a lecturer or admin staff, Lee also said interactions could remain informal while still informative, pointing out that many preferred to use WeChat over face-to-face as it allowed for alternative communication methods, such as emojis.
By communicating with emojis and other methods with which they were comfortable, many students felt they got more out of their peer relationships than lecturer relationships, she said.
“I think brokering gives a real opportunity to examine how international students exercise agency,” she said.
“Some people think of agency as just doing something, but it’s a bit more than that. It’s being able to function in an environment which allows you to negotiate, which allows you to gain exchange knowledge.”
According to Nina Rikkonen, student experience advisor at the University Auckland, institutions should work towards facilitating peer mentoring relationships, as the benefits often exceeded just the academic.
Rikkonen, who until recently managed a first-year mentors program at her university, said such relationships also had a noticeable emotional benefit for mentors, who felt they were making a significant contribution to others.
“One of the big things that I’ve picked up on, and we talked a little bit about, is the idea of being part of something,” she said.
“Having a mentoring scheme like this, from a mentor point of view, [is like] functioning as a bit of a family. It’s not just about the students that we support through our first-year experience program, it about the experience that the mentors get out of it.”
As well as the positive impacts peer mentoring has to students’ academic performance and mental wellbeing, the role of student leaders in disseminating non-academic support information was also highlighted.
“Try, as a university, to take a really grass-roots approach from the bottom up,” medical student Ben Jones told delegates.
“Students tend to listen to other students a lot easier… If you can really get the information to the student leaders amongst the student body, I think that’s sort of the best way to connect with all the different types of students, because they’re already formed those sort of relationships.”
Speaking at a student panel, Jones added that using student leaders also helped to centre messaging and focus on critical points.
“You’ve just got it coming from the student leaders and various other students who are already there,” he said.
Both Australia and New Zealand have seen significant growth in their student populations in recent years, with the increases prompting the region to start reconsidering how it delivers services to ensure students are completing their studies and fostering mental wellbeing.