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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, June 16, 2024

PASSPORT program enters third year, provides mentorship for international students


For any student transitioning to college for the first time, challenges are bound to arise. But for international students, there are unique difficulties that accompany navigating a new country and culture. To help ease the transition for these students, the PASSPORT program matches international students on financial aid with Tufts-affiliated mentors.

Currently in its third year, the program has had approximately 80 student participants to date, according to Jennifer Simons, director of international recruitment and associate director of admissions.

Simons said that as changes in Tufts’ financial aid policy have allowed more non-U.S. citizens to attend the university in recent years, the importance of providing additional resources for those students became more important.

“We found ourselves … with students here on campus that really had never been to the U.S.," Simons said. "They came without … really any resources, because even when you get financial aid … it doesn’t really help you navigate once you’re here. And so it was becoming apparent to me that it was irresponsible to recruit and enroll [international] students without offering them initial, really basic support.”

Simons, who headed the creation of the PASSPORT program through the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, quickly realized that the admissions office, with all its responsibilities, could not run the PASSPORT program on its own. As a result, Admissions soon teamed up with the International Center and the Office of Alumni Relations and University Advancement, according to Jane Etish-Andrews, director of the International Center.

Each year, Simons reaches out to incoming first-years who are non-U.S. citizens and are on significant financial aid to ask if they would like to take part in the PASSPORT program. In order to maximize desirable scenarios, Simons considers each student’s interests as well as each mentor’s preferences and matches them accordingly. Simons recognized that this relationship may not look the same for every mentor-mentee pair.

“The best possible scenario is that you ... create a long-lasting relationship where … your mentee gets married and you’re invited to the wedding," she said. "But I think also a good scenario is that your mentee is so happy that they don’t need you, but it’s really [that] they want to establish a relationship with you.”

According to Simons, the mentors may be Tufts alumni, parents, or, as of last year, members of Tufts staff or faculty, and their activities and responsibilities may include picking up their mentees from the airport upon their arrival to Boston, attending events on campus or even inviting their mentees to their homes. According to Etish-Andrews, all PASSPORT program participants meet a couple of times throughout the year for events such as an ice cream social or pizza party.

One of the mentors, Tufts alumnus Bruce Male (A ’77) emphasized the need for a program like PASSPORT to serve as the support system that international students may lack as they enter college.

“You’re talking about probably the first major, major change in their lives, because they’re changing countries, they’re changing … physical environments, they’re changing cultural environments, they’re changing all of their personal environments," Male said. "And when you thrust them into a totally different structure, and all of those things combine all in one day, it’s pretty daunting.”

Male's mentee, junior Oğul Girgin, who is from Turkey, underscored the importance of the PASSPORT program in helping him adjust to daily life in a new country. As a student who knew no one in the U.S. aside from Male prior to his arrival, Girgin said that the challenges faced by international students extends beyond significant life changes -- they also include the more mundane aspects of living here.

“I had no idea as to what CVS was or … where to shop for food, for toilet paper, or stuff like that, so [the PASSPORT program] has been great,” he said. “It provides someone that I can reach out to, or a resource that I can ask questions to – not just … career-wise or post-graduation, but actually the little things about living in the States.”

Girgin believes that the PASSPORT program allows mentors and mentees to build different types of relationships based on what they want to have.

“It’s up to you how much communication you want to establish, how frequently you want to see each other, how well you guys click, and … I feel like it’s better that way because every person, every culture, every student [has] their own unique sensibilities, and every mentor as well,” Girgin said.

Although each mentor or mentee is different from the next, Girgin expressed the one thing they all have in common: the desire to participate in the program.

“People who sign up to be [mentors] are … especially friendly people who do this voluntarily," he said. "It’s not mandated upon anyone to be part of this program, and also for the mentees as well because you volunteer to be a part of this program. So it’s just people who wish to reach out to other people, to establish communication.”

As the program continues to develop, one major role of the administration is to provide more programming to help jumpstart and maintain meaningful relationships, Etish-Andrews explained.

“[A mentor and mentee] might be texting or emailing or [talking] on the phone, but sometimes it takes them a while until they can physically meet, so we’re trying to hopefully get them to meet sooner … and give them ideas of things they could do around the area,” she said.

Although Etish-Andrews would like it to have the widest reach possible, the program currently serves only those international students who are on significant financial aid.

“We’d like to offer this kind of program more broadly to all incoming international students, but as sort of a starter we’re using students who are getting some aid,” she said. “We care about all the international students and we’re thrilled to have them all here, but we’ve just been able to pull out [this] small number of students who we know will have less resources.”

The main concern with expanding the program is a lack of mentors and staff, Etish-Andrews said.

“Once you open [the program to all international students] … instead of 30 mentors a year you could end up needing 100," she said. "And it could be very worthwhile but we don’t really have… the staffing capacity to really do it well. So it’s sort of like, how do we get to the next stage, and do we get to the next stage?”

While the ability of the PASSPORT program to expand may be up in the air, the successes that both PASSPORT mentors and mentees have experienced suggests that it has already made a lasting impact.

For mentors, the PASSPORT program provides a unique chance to expand their own horizons as they interact with current Tufts students, Male explained.

“[I]t’s an opportunity for some Tufts alums to get re-involved in active Tufts things, coming back to campus, taking part in various functions," he said. "So I think that’s very valuable to everybody concerned. There [are] no losers here; everybody wins.”

Although he posits that he would have managed to adjust to life at Tufts without the PASSPORT program, Girgin is grateful for its influence on his transition and beyond.

“I just regard [the] PASSPORT program … as a source of comfort and source of security more than anything else, because without it I wouldn't have been able to survive as well," he said. "People who did not have the PASSPORT program learned how to live without it as well. However, it just makes everything so much easier.”