Extensive research regarding mentoring programs in higher education settings has found that such programs increase a student’s likelihood of academic success, reduce attrition, and provide psychosocial benefits, including an increased sense of connection to the institution (Tinoco-Giraldo et al., 2020, Hamilton et al., 2019). In a 2021 Student Voice survey of over 2000 undergraduates, responders described far-ranging benefits of engagement with mentoring programs, including receiving advice and guidance to better navigate student life, the development of leadership and communication skills, and increased social connection (College Pulse, 2021).
Lorena Ajuria, ELICOS Senior Teacher at the Centre for English Language in the University of South Australia (CELUSA), explains how the college's mentoring opportunities support students to consolidate their academic and personal strengths beyond the classroom setting.
What motivated you to seek opportunities for student mentoring at CELUSA?
The starting point for my interest in mentoring ELICOS students was my volunteer work with Australian children’s charity, The Smith Family. I’ve been a mentor with their iTrack program since 2018. iTrack connects disadvantaged high school students from years 9 to 11 with an online mentor who provides advice and guidance relating to study, work, and career challenges and opportunities. The work that I did with the iTrack students was challenging but rewarding. It was also my first experience working online with students, because at that stage we hadn’t done a lot of online teaching at CELUSA.
From there, my aim was to encourage my colleagues to get involved with the iTrack program. I ran a mentoring day with guest speakers from The Smith Family, so that my colleagues could get a chance to hear about the program and ask some questions. That was really the starting point for my mentoring journey, and my work with The Smith Family is ongoing.
“What is iTrack?” – The Smith Family via YouTube
At the same time, the idea of seeking opportunities to be more proactive in my role to support our ELICOS students was always in the background. The question for me was how I could help beyond the classroom environment, because we spend a lot of time working and conferencing with students, but outside of that context was something that I hadn’t really found an avenue to explore.
I became aware of and began researching StudyAdelaide, a state government funded organisation that works solely for the benefit of international students here in South Australia. StudyAdelaide provides international students with career services, pre-arrival programs, and free events and activities. It’s essentially a one-stop-shop for international students in South Australia. One of their initiatives is the International Student Awards, which recognise and celebrate the achievements of international students in an variety of different areas, including academic excellence in pathway programs, such as those provided at CELUSA.
I looked into the candidates that had won in previous years, started thinking about students in my classes that might fit the criteria, and very quickly found some students I thought would be strong candidates. I was looking for students who stand out, not just for their academic abilities, but also their personal qualities, such as their leadership capabilities, as well as their ability to collaborate with their peers and the wider community.
What were the next steps taken to consolidate mentoring opportunities?
The award seemed like a good way for me to support student development . The award application process requires students to answer a range of questions about their personal achievements, their academic achievements, their volunteering and community services, their skills and capabilities, their diverse roles, and how they relate to their peers and their teachers. It’s a comprehensive list of questions that they need to respond to in order to complete the application.
My role is all about guiding the students through that process, supporting them to use their own knowledge and experiences to strategically make the most of the questions, appeal to the judging panel and potentially win the award. It’s a process that takes, for some awards two or three weeks, and for others, up to eight weeks.
What does the application process involve?
Throughout the application process I will be communicating online with my mentee three or four times a week, sometimes more – we will be chatting and meeting on Zoom, and there will be a drafting process, suggestions about how to improve, and revision of drafts. My role is to guide the student through that application process and help them to strategically highlight their strengths, particularly where they can’t see these themselves. That’s perhaps the most challenging part for me because students may struggle to construct a response that stands out to the judges. So how do we change what might be quite a straightforward response to something that shines compared to the other candidates?
The challenge is being able to give the student an opportunity to consolidate their strengths beyond the classroom setting, and to allow them to see their individual and unique sense of worth as an international student and a South Australian community member. These are skills that will ultimately allow them to engage successfully in a university setting in their future studies. It’s about lifelong learning, and hopefully the proximity of working with these challenges will help them in the future as well.
As the process unfolds, you begin to see students constructing these beautiful, rainbow-coloured responses, from what are quite dull, grey responses to the questions in the initial drafting stages, and that is how we know the student is going to draw the interest of and appeal to the judges.
I always ask myself, what would have become of me if I had had a mentor to guide me at that stage in my life? What would my life be like today? My desire is for this shared experience to have a long-term impact on the students, and for them to pass the potentially life-changing opportunity for growth forward. I know that these students are different after having taken part, they often say – “Look at this opportunity that has come up”, or “Have a look at what I’ve achieved”. There are very positive effects for the students, and I know these are long term outcomes, which lead to real change for them. It’s my privilege to be a part of that journey.
What has been the impact of the opportunities for mentoring at CELUSA?
Overall, we’ve had three students go through the program, winning five separate awards.
- 2019 StudyAdelaide Academic Excellence: Pathways Award– Marcela Tobon (Colombia)
- 2020 StudyAdelaide Academic Excellence: Pathways Award– Maria Camila Gonzalez Davila (Colombia)
- 2021 StudyAdelaide International Student Ambassador- Maria Camila Gonzalez Davila (Colombia)
- 2022 StudyAdelaide International Student Ambassador– Lucia Rojas – (Peru)
- 2022 StudyAdelaide Academic Excellence: Postgraduate Coursework (Highly Commended) – Maria Camila Gonzalez Davila (Colombia)
However, the program is not just about winning awards. It’s also about the opportunities for leadership that this program provides to students. After completing the program and being recognised as student leaders, award winners, and ambassadors, mentees are invited into CELUSA classrooms to share their knowledge, provide support, and offer guidance to their peers. Of course, this is a learning experience in itself!
Past mentees have talked with current students about wide-ranging topics, from their university pathway experiences and how they experienced the transition to university, to the application process for the award they won. They have also mentored their peers on oral presentations, provided tips for presenting on Zoom, and 2020 Pathways Award winner and 2021 Student Ambassador Camilla has even done work promoting online learning at CELUSA through our marketing department. 2022 Student Ambassador, Lucia Rojas is doing incredible work as an alumni contributor to our college newsletter, providing graphic design skills and support.
CELUSA staff are also aware that they can engage with these student leaders if they’d like to have them join their class. Camila has joined classes as a student leader many times and her growth has been exponential. Camila excels in public situations, and whether in front of the camera, or leading an on-campus class, the way she commands the group is highly impressive. In the past, Camila struggled with shyness, but she has overcome her challenges, and her shyness in public situations is now a thing of the past. When students like Camila come into the classroom, it gives their peers an opportunity to see a student leader in action and a model to our students that promotes the point of “I did this, and you can do it too”.
After these months being a Study Adelaide Ambassador, I have realised that sharing the experience and information that one knows about the life of a student helps other international students a lot, and they can have a better experience in university life. Thank you for opening these spaces in your class so more students can have the opportunity that you gave me when I was a CELUSA student. Without that space, I would not have had the opportunity today to be an ambassador for StudyAdelaide and live all the experiences and learning that I live today.
- Lucia Rojas, 2022 StudyAdelaide International Student Ambassador
I joined the mentoring program to improve my professional skills. I used to be really shy, I was afraid of talking in public, and even more when it was in English. Lorena helped me a lot with that. In the future, I would like to stay in Australia, I still have a lot to give here. I really like the international education industry and have been working as a casual with UniSA (as a peer mentor, as BUPA ambassador leader and as Student Financial Officer), and all of the experience that I’ve been getting has helped me realise I have a passion for this industry. I want to use my degree in marketing to improve international students’ wellbeing and experience.
- Camilla Gonzalez Davila, 2020 StudyAdelaide Pathways Award winner, 2021 Student Ambassador and 2022 StudyAdelaide Academic Excellence in Postgraduate Coursework- Highly Commended
What has been the impact of mentoring for you, personally, and as a teacher?
I’ve been an ELICOS teacher now for around 20 years. Being able to do something that extends my role, whether it be on campus or online, strengthens the platform that motivates me to continue doing what I dome going. Mentoring has become a personal project outside of my workspace; it’s just me and my mentee, and I commit to that mentoring journey. It’s a unique process because you are privileged in that you are getting to know another person and being trusted with sensitive information. The privilege comes in being mindful of how that information is shared.
Mentoring has allowed me to find personal and professional development beyond the classroom setting. During the pandemic it boosted my wellbeing - I found it great company to collaborate with my mentees and contribute to their learning journey. It was really helpful in reducing my social isolation and keeping me connected. It’s not just about the application drafting process, it’s about the human component and that’s really the best part.
I also find a great privilege in being able to mentor other women. I’m really honoured to be able to shine the light on women's strengths, build confidence and identify opportunities for lifelong learning. Now, I see myself as a mentor and that’s how I position myself: I am a teacher and a mentor. Importantly, my sense of identity has changed and grown so that I can now comfortably lead in both of these roles.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of seeking out mentoring opportunities like this at their own college?
First and foremost, clearly establish the aims you’re hoping to achieve. I know that my students will be competing for awards, and through competing for (and winning) those awards, doors will be opened. It’s important to have a goal or outcome established early. The next challenge is finding ways to identify students that may benefit from mentoring. Consider the types of activities you can design and the lessons you can plan to give students the space to demonstrate their academic skills, personal traits, and leadership qualities. If you are considering a seeking out mentoring opportunities as a platform for student leadership, I would recommend looking at the awards for domestic and international students in your state.
See below for a short list of some of the student awards available across Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand:
- Study Melbourne: International Student Awards
- Study NSW: International Student Awards
- Study Adelaide: International Student Awards
- Council for International Students of Western Australia (CISWA) Awards
- International Education Association Inc (ISANA) Aotearoa/New Zealand Awards
College Pulse. (2021). Student Voice: Mentor Connection. College Pulse https://reports.collegepulse.com/student-voice-mentor-connections
Hamilton, L., Boman, J., Rubin, H. (2019), Examining the impact of a university mentorship program on student outcomes. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education. 8(1), https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-02-2018-0013
Tinoco-Giraldo H., Torricelli Sánchez E.M., & García-Penal F.J. (2020). E-Mentoring in Higher Education: A Structured Literature Review and Implications for Future Research. Sustainability, 12(11), https://doi.org/10.3390/su12114344
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