Grant Provides Critical Support for International Student Transitions

Now in its third year, the International Student Mentorship Program, created and run by English Language Center (ELC) Instructor Alissa Cohen, was recently awarded a 2015-16 Continuing Inclusive Excellence Grant (CIEG) by MSU.

CIEG support includes non-recurring funding of projects, programs, and proposals to create and support an inclusive university. This is the first year the Mentorship Program has received CIEG funding.

In describing the rationale behind the program, Cohen says “International students at MSU’s English Language Center often have difficulties adjusting to the U.S. Realizing they need more than just a resource or partner, we determined the best solution was providing mentors from their peers.

“Utilizing funds from the college and elsewhere, we developed the program and it’s been wildly successful for mentees and mentors,” says Cohen. “English as a Second Language (ESL) students learn English faster and better, and adapt more easily to surroundings. Mentors develop cross-cultural competencies and leadership skills, and get to know people they’d never have met.

The primary Mentoring criteria is at least one person with the same major or related major as the mentee; someone successful in their major. Mentors are matched by gender when possible or when requested due to cultural or religious considerations. The program uses the University’s data request system and also targets individual departments for mentors.

The Mentor-Mentee Relationship

MSU senior Economics major Yufeng Zhang has been an ESL International student mentor for three semesters. From Xiamen, a port city on China’s southeast coast across a strait from Taiwan, Yufeng first heard about the program via e-mail.

“The email requested students with experience taking the ESL class to consider being a mentor; to assist new freshmen better adapt to life here,” Yufeng says. “Having taken the ESL class, I know there is confusion and difficulty taking it, as well as with life here. I also knew I would have appreciated it if someone could have helped me, freshman year. I decided to do it, and that it would also be a good way to make new friends.”

Having taken the ESL class, I know there is confusion and difficulty taking it, as well as with life here. I also knew I would have appreciated it if someone could have helped me, freshman year.


Domestic mentor Sierra Owen, who is dual enrolled as an undergraduate marketing senior and a first-year grad student pursuing her masters in market research, says “I’d gone on two short study abroad programs last summer, one to Scotland and one to Ireland. I spoke the language, and still found it difficult. Everything was really different, and there was so much I didn’t know.

“I couldn’t imagine doing that on top of having a language barrier and being a full- time student. I was only on study abroad for a couple of weeks taking classes. They’ll be here for years. So, I’m glad MSU has a program like this.”

When Fall term 2016 began, Yufeng and Sierra were assigned to mentor supply chain major Taerim Kim, an international student from Cheongju, Korea, the capital and largest city of North Chungcheong Province.

“I had been a high school foreign exchange student in California, and went back to Korea and graduated there, “Taerim says. “Then, I came to MSU. First semester, I had to take the ESL course, and thought it would be great experience before getting into ‘real’ college life. I signed up, and met my two mentors.”

Taerim says the three do a weekly project; such as finding a club she’s interested in, or going to an MSU student resource center to learn what’s available to her. She notes that the mentor program fulfills its main purpose, too, by helping her practice and learn English, as mentors and mentees must text and speak solely in English.

“Yufeng and Sierra have both been here awhile, so they are sort of the MSU experts,” Taerim says. “They really help me. And not just as mentor and mentee. We meet and hang with each other as friends, too. Sometimes, we’ll talk about what it’s like being an international student; how others regard us. So, there’s cultural communications, too.”

Mentor Meetings and Mentee Essays

From left to right: Yufeng, Taerim, and Sierra

Yufeng and Sierra agree that required weekly group mentor meetings are very helpful. They learn what other mentors are experiencing, and the difficulties they have, and become aware of issues they may not have noticed, as well as ways to solve various problems.

Taerim says the same is true for weekly essays that mentees must write and share in class. Essay subjects cover activities that mentees did with their mentors, where they went, what they learned, and more. Taerim says it’s also a good check and balance to make sure mentors and mentees engage in the program.

Yufeng and Sierra believe Taerim has a great deal to do with their own program engagement and success. “I think she (Taerim) is the key reason,” Yufeng says. “Taerim is very motivated, and eager to learn everything.”

Program creator Alissa Cohen says all three women display those qualities.

“For both ELC students and mentors, the program runs one-semester, but we stress to mentors that, ideally, they should establish a relationship beyond the program,” Cohen says. “The ones that do are often the most successful groupings in tackling motivation and isolation issues.”

As for the Creating Inclusive Excellence Grant, Cohen says, “We were thrilled to get it, and believe the ELC mentor program perfectly reflects the grant program’s name and purpose. It’s a one-year grant, though, so we’re concentrating on ways to best ‘represent the benefits’ and demonstrate the program’s value.”