Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Meet your mentor

Can befriending increase the effectiveness of support for non-native speakers at English medium universities?

(This article first appeared in English Language Gazette of January 2009)

Matt Salusbury


WITH THE continued rise in international students in English-speaking universities, more EAP and Foundation courses are springing up. But alongside training international students in English and in study skills, there’s also another strand to support for non-native English speaking students to ensure that they can stand the course – mentoring. Course descriptions for courses designed for international students on various UK university websites increasingly show less emphasis on many hours of generic EAP in groups, and more emphasis on tutorials, one-to-one English language sessions, and mentoring. What is mentoring, and how can it be used to help international university students succeed?

Mentoring is an increasingly popular tool in the UK, according to the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation (MBF), who run training projects for mentors through nine regional coordinators round the country, backed by the Home Office and the Cabinet Office. Mentoring is a concept being used in many areas of life – from tackling bullying at school to settling young offenders back into the community.

Mentoring (the term is often used interchangeable with ‘coaching’) is about helping people acquire the awareness and confidence necessary to fulfil their potential. Several Chinese students on MA courses in the US interviewed for our recent survey, for example, said life at a US university got much easier when they suddenly realised they were expected to ask for help when they needed it. This realisation, while vital for their success, has little to do with English or study skills. Within mentoring there is ‘peer mentoring’ – in universities this will be by other students – and ‘classic’ mentoring, which usually means a role taken on by university teaching or support staff. Properly done, mentoring should always be monitored, usually by the university. The MBF run the Approved Provider Standard (APS), which has benchmarks and best practice for mentoring.

Charlotte Leather of the MBF told the Gazette about some of the developments in mentoring projects aimed at international students at UK universities. These are most peer-monitoring projects which engage students who are already enrolled in ‘befriending’ roles – providing social support for international students when they first come to the UK.

Charlotte says these befriending projects are important part of ensuring retention of international students across UK universities, and that students who ‘befriend’ incoming international students can also fill an important role in familiarising them with areas of the subject they are coming to study. Universities are usually able to get established students to work as ‘befrienders’ on a volunteer basis, as the experience gained by mentors is seen as very valuable to their future career. Academic departments or units that have a lot of international students are also starting to work closely with students’ unions on these mentoring projects.

Rong Huang of Plymouth University has done extensive search on mentoring support for international students at every level, and how mentoring affects success. On one course, for ‘direct entry students’ students from China and other countries joining a course in its third year, he found there was a 43 per cent failure rate, and that the international students’ ‘transition has currently been managed on an ad hoc basis.’ His response was to train student mentors, including international students who had just arrived, and to use feedback from the ‘direct entry students’ and their mentors to compile materials for the next international intake of this course. There’s now a ‘special visit day’ for potential students of the course, at which the university goes to gatherings of potential applicants abroad and provides them with a full orientation. As a result, the university’s agents abroad can provide much more precise information about what the student can expect.

Charlotte told the Gazette that the University of Exeter’s peer mentoring scheme now starts six weeks before the start of the degree course, when the student arrives at the airport to be met by a student peer mentor. It’s followed by introductions to subject areas, the library, the university and the UK, all before the course starts. Mentors are older students – at the request of the international student body they are a combination of international and ‘British’ students, as international students felt they weren’t meeting enough students from the UK.

Another innovative mentoring project is the one at Sheffield University, which has 23 international student mentors who can be contacted through an email network for enquiries about orientation and on subject areas.

Rong Huang notes that there’s a tendency to see international students in terms of their country of origin, and how this affects their learning styles – how the UK’s academic culture is different to that of Asia, and particularly China, for example. While there’s been a lot of work on addressing these specific issues – see the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCIS) ‘Prepare for Success’ for example – Huang says there’s been little research into the international student body as a whole. His research at Plymouth University showed they were generally satisfied by their courses and support services, but less happy with courses’ value for money and the quality of their seminars.

It was in their participation in social activities and sports that the international students surveyed felt dissatisfaction. Most international students were not ‘socially active,’ and their friends were mostly from their own countries. Only 15 per cent of them reported that their friends were ‘British’ students, and 77 per cent thought that UK students were ‘hard to get to know.’

Limited by their English? With increasing numbers of international students, is UK education risking its reputation? Read this article here

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