Passport program provides first-year mentorship, lifelong friendships

04/10/2017 - Medford/Somerville, MA - Junior Minh Nguyen, who participates in the PASSPORT program, poses for a photo outside Anderson Hall on Oct 4.The Passport Program, which is run through the International Center, matches first-year international students on financial aid with mentors who help them adjust to life in the U.S. (Ben Kim / The Tufts Daily)

For international students arriving at Tufts, the first year of college can often entail more challenges than just making friends and trying to find their classrooms. Many international students, especially those on financial aid who may not have had the resources to travel to the United States before, must learn to integrate into an entirely different education system and culture.

To fill this need, the Passport Program, which is run through the cooperation of the International Center, the Office of Undergraduate AdmissionsOffice of Alumni Relations, and University Advancement, matches first-year international students on financial aid with mentors who help them adjust to life in the United States.

According to Sayaka Smith, the admissions counselor who works on recruitment for the program, Passport was started in 2013 by Jennifer Simons, who was the director of international recruitment and the associate director of admissions.

“The first year of transitioning to college can be challenging for all students, but as an international student, you’re sometimes arriving with just a suitcase and a lot of courage — this may be your first time on a plane in your life — and knowing someone is looking out for you can give you a great boost of confidence until you find your feet,” Smith told the Daily in an email.

Over the last five years, Smith wrote that the program has matched over 100 students with mentors. These mentors can be local Tufts alumni, faculty, staff and people affiliated with Tufts, such as members of the Board of Advisors. Smith explained that Admissions and the I-Center often consider things like shared hobbies or a common language when making the pairing.

“A mentor may meet [a student] at Logan Airport when they first arrive in the country or take them to set up their bank account,” Smith said. “They will invite students to holiday celebrations or invite students over for dinner. Mentors will periodically check in with their student to see how they are doing.”

Bruce Male, a member of the Board of Trustees and the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL) Board, has been advising students on an ad hoc basis since 2005, when he worked with Simons to advise a student from Bulgaria. He has had a mentee each year since.

“I have traveled extensively myself, and I know how hard it is to get accustomed to a foreign country,” Male said.

He said that he has seen the relationships formed through his mentoring as beneficial for both him and his mentees.

“It’s a great opportunity to foster understanding between different cultures, different people,” he said. “If we had more of that, maybe we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in.”

Male visits campus frequently and uses these opportunities to meet with his mentees, inviting some to his home for Thanksgiving dinner and even helping them buy winter clothes.

Although mentorship pairings are only formally for one year, Male said he views the relationships formed through Passport mentorships as a lifelong bond.

“It’s really not just a one-year thing, it’s a four-year thing,” he said. “Four years of the student being at Tufts, but it usually does go beyond that.”

According to Neriliz Soto González, international student and scholar advisor at the International Center, 41 of the 151 international students in the class of 2020 were awarded financial aid, and 18 were matched with a mentor. Of this year’s incoming class, 23 students received a mentor.

“We basically compare how many students are on financial aid and how many mentors are available and, depending on how many mentors we have, then we decide how we match them,” she said.

González also works on event planning for the program, which holds an annual welcome reception as well as events intended to facilitate their interactions throughout the year that are open to all mentors and mentees.

Sophomore Rabecca Musiega, who is a mentee in the Passport Program, came to Tufts from Nairobi, Kenya. She said that she enjoyed these events since they also allowed her to meet other mentorship pairs.

“They’ve made a really good effort to make sure that even, as much as you have your mentor relationship as well, there are collective activities for all mentors and mentees,” she said. “And it’s a good opportunity to get to meet the other people and also hear about the experiences of the mentors and what me and my mentor can try to bring into our relationship.”

Musiega said that over time, as she has adjusted better to life at Tufts, her relationship with her mentor has became more of a friendship.

“Of course, the first few weeks was more about adjusting to U.S. culture and to Tufts. But now that that process has reduced or has come to an end, we’ve found other things or other topics to keep us connected,” she said. “And I remember this summer, my mentor got engaged, and she was texting me, … and she was so excited. And I was like, ‘this is crazy,’ cause most of my other … mentors that I came in with I hardly talk to them.”

Musiega appreciated the fact that she had someone to turn to and speak with is she needed to.

“She was always listening, even when I went on my long rants. She’d always be there to listen and validate my experiences,” she said.

She distinguished this relationship from others on campus since mentors have already been through experiences at Tufts and offer an outlet outside of peers to international students, many of whom have no other family in the U.S.

“I think they’ve done a good job in terms of providing a support, an adult support for international students as they navigate everything,” Musiega said. “Because you have friends of course, who are your age, but it helps to have someone, I think some have mentors who are staff, others are alumni like myself, and the parents as well.”

Junior Minh Nguyen participated in the Passport Program and said that his advisor was also able to help him adjust from living in Vietnam to studying at Tufts.

“Aside from the area, I also had some problems dealing with classes at first because I was not super familiar with the [education] system in the U.S.,” he said. “I talked to him a couple of times about classes, and he also offered some advice on how to manage my time and just general advice on how to not get lost in all the homework and exams but still do well in the class. He was very helpful.”

They would often go out for dinner and speak about any issues Nguyen was encountering.

“We would usually just go to some place close to campus or a Vietnamese place somewhere,” he said. “It was a really positive experience for me. My mentor was really helpful, and if I had to come to the U.S. for the first time again, I’d would definitely sign up for Passport again.”

As more students apply for mentors, the Passport Program is unable to provide all students with mentors. Both Gonzalez, who pointed out that there is an issue of scale due to the limited staff of the program and Male, who said he makes pitches in various public meetings to publicize the program, emphasized that the program is always looking for new mentors.

“Most of our mentors are repeated mentors, so it would be good to just have different people get involved,” Gonzalez said. “Not that we would deny anyone, anyone who wants to become a mentor, it doesn’t matter how many times they [may be] willing to do it, we are welcome to receive them. But we would just like to have different people take more students if it would be possible.”

However, the members of the I-Center and Admissions are working on improvements that can be made while seeking feedback from participants.

“We are also working on more training materials to empower our mentors with the information to better advise their students about resources on campus upon arrival, as well as letting them know about certain times where it might be nice for them to reach out with some support – e.g. before finals or around mid-terms,” Smith said.

Smith also said that the goal is for the program to become more widely known and to attract a variety of mentors.

“We’d definitely like to make the program better known across the Tufts community,” Smith said. “We’d love to have more international alumni as well as staff and faculty involved as they each bring great perspectives and knowledge to the program.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misquoted Neriliz Soto González’s thoughts regarding returning mentors in the Passport Program. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily regrets this error.