LEAP students African drumming experience

University students help themselves by helping others: Student Mentoring

If someone had told me when I enrolled in my postgraduate Education degree that towards the end of my first year I would be engaging in some very energetic African drumming/dancing on Level 3 of the Campus Hub building with some fellow university students, high school students, their teachers, and the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Social Inclusion), I might not have believed them…

So why would a self-confessed introvert such as myself venture out of their comfort zone and tear themselves away from their iLearn modules and the library research databases to do something with such potential for social awkwardness??

The answer: the Macquarie University LEAP (Learning, Education, Aspiration, Participation) Refugee Mentoring Program.

We, the student mentors, and our program facilitators, were fortunate to have the company of our very excited and energetic mentees for one day on campus, where we not only got to have a surprising amount of fun with the African drumming but also showed our visitors around the buildings and grounds and shared food and activities with them and their teachers, from various high schools in Western and South-Western Sydney.

So as fun as all of this sounds, surely we taught our mentees something other than how to get from the gym to the library?

On my first day of the 10-week mentoring program at Blacktown Girls High School, after taking a very confusing route from the office to a building in the back of the school, we were greeted in the doorway by a very bubbly Year 11 girl who looked back over her shoulder and shouted: “They’re HERE!!!” I couldn’t help but match her enormous smile…and I found out very soon after that this was indeed one of my 2 amazing mentees I had been partnered with for this program.

You forget how frenetic the pace of high school is (when you are fortunate to spend your time on a pretty relaxed campus where the furthest you have to walk for coffee is approximately 100 metres), so our first session (in the students’ lunchbreak) went so quickly with a flurry of conversation and exchanging of stories, but luckily we still had 9 sessions to go…

So what did we (hopefully) teach our mentees throughout this rigorous semester? How to recognise their skills and strengths (whether in school or outside of it), how to find the best and most accurate information on uni, pathways and alternatives, how to navigate the workforce, and how to nurture their creativity.

When high school students from this program were surveyed, 90% of them said that participating in the program and visiting Macquarie University had increased their desire to attend a university. 50% of participants surveyed reported that because of the program they now had a regular study routine, studied more regularly or did their homework more regularly.

In order to assist students with developing these skills, as well as the knowledge we had brought from our various professional, educational and life experiences, the mentors also engaged in intensive online (via iLearn) and face-to-face training to prepare us for this specific mentoring program.

And what did we as mentors learn in this process?

For me, with my education practicum placement coming up in the next year of my degree, completing this program made me feel much more confident about being in the classroom (and eager to get there!)

I also realised that even though I was yet to turn 30 at that time, through the process of sharing my knowledge (of study skills, changing careers, preparing for interviews, working out the best “path/s”), I became aware that even though finishing my teacher training still seemed like a long way off, I already had plenty to teach through advising…and the reflective process helped to clarify my own career goals.

By the time of participating in this program I had already had experience as both a student and alumni mentor, and the intensive nature of this very well organised program had a significant impact on me. I felt more connected to the University as a result of undertaking this program with other students, and knew that the field of Education was what I wanted to commit to for my (second) career. Other students in focus groups have reported similar benefits in undertaking this initiative as part of their degree programs.

So what will I always remember from undertaking this program as a second-time-around MQ student?

….That the teacher/mentee coordinator, ESL teacher Karin Harrison, gave up her lunchtimes to make sure both the mentors and mentees were looked after (and also very well-fed!);

…That the LEAP Project Coordinator, Aakifah Suleman, Widening Participation Manager, Ruth Tregale, and incoming Project Coordinator, Rob Ephraums, believed so passionately in the program and you couldn’t help but be influenced by their enthusiasm;

…And one of my (soon-to-be) mentees shouting with such obvious excitement at the fact that we were visiting them at their school (with the equally happy faces of students and teachers when they visited us on campus);

…All of which made me content in the knowledge that, even in my first year of studying again, I could make a difference (although, I could still use some help with those African drumming skills…)

This post was inspired by the Learning & Teaching Week (2014) paper presentation delivered by Sonal Singh and Ruth Tregale, Outreach Mentors with High School Mentees: Co-creating Engagement, Belonging and Loyalty in Higher Education

For a recent SBS report on the program see the video Mentors encourage refugee kids to apply for university places

For more information on the background, elements and benefits of this program, see Tregale and Bosanquet (2011), Supporting high school students from refugee backgrounds to successfully transition to higher education

Lara Hardy is a Law and Education Graduate and current staff member of Macquarie University.