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Mentor Program Gives International Student Orientation a Personal Touch

By Valery K. Brobbey

Staff reporter Valery K. Brobbey is an international student from Ghana and was a mentor in this year’s International Freshman Mentor Program.

A relatively unknown program has left a smile of satisfaction on the faces of many freshmen this year. This year, 92 freshmen from over 50 different foreign countries arrived on campus to begin their four years of undergraduate study at MIT. While these students had to attend all the mandatory sessions of this year’s International Student Orientation, most of them also attended the other optional — and generally more fun — events.

International Student Orientation is entwined with the International Freshman Mentor Program (IFMP), founded in 1997 by Kate Baty ’05, the then organizer of the Host to International Students Program and Paulette Schwartz who is still actively involved in the IFMP.

From as early as June, mentors in the IFMP began exchanging e-mails with incoming freshmen. “I think in some ways, orientation begins when mentors start contacting their students and beginning some kind of dialogue,” Schwartz said.

About 45 freshmen signed up for the mentor program, which is not mandatory, and about 27 upperclass international students volunteered to be mentors for this year’s program.

There were a total of seven mentor groups, with on average four mentors and six freshmen. I, along with the three other mentors in my group, answered questions relating to course selection, the Independent Activities Period, dorms, dorm supplies, and clothing. This advice is similar to that given on the admissions blogs but on a much more personal level.

Arguably, the most important part of the mentor program is the airport pickup.

“I had some problems with delayed baggage, and if I had to deal with the situation alone it would have been very difficult,” wrote Iliya T. Tsekov ’08 from Bulgaria, in his application to be a mentor in this year’s program.

I met fellow mentor Adelaide S. Calbry-Muzyka ’09 from Canada and France at the Kendall “T” Stop August 18 at noon. She was equipped with a sign with “Arka Dhar” boldly printed on it. We arrived at Logan’s Terminal B to find a handful of people in the mentor program, including Schwartz and Robert G. Leke ’07 from Cameroon. Leke, plagued by a bad experience with his arrival freshman year, wanted to be transportation coordinator to prevent others from having to deal with the stress he went through.

In all, he spent more than 20 hours at the airport on the weekend of international student arrivals. A total of 36 incoming international freshmen requested to be picked up at the airport.

That Friday, as we stood chatting and waiting for our freshmen to arrive, a young man walked up to us and introduced himself as Arka.

Arka P. Dhar ’10 from India had just arrived in Boston on a connecting flight from Chicago. Along with Abdulaziz M. Albahar ’10 from Kuwait who had also just arrived at the airport, we began our journey back to campus.

Calbry-Muzyka and I helped Dhar register and check in to his room. He was grateful to his mentors for “helping me carry my baggage to the fourth floor of East Campus.”

We said goodbye to Dhar just in time to get back to the airport to pick up Joe Khoury ’10 from Lebanon.

One of my favorite airport pick-up moments was when two Turkish students, Cankutan Hasar ’10 and Serdar Karatekin ’10 arrived on separate flights that were moments apart. Neither they nor the mentors realized that they were both from Turkey until they introduced themselves and spontaneously started speaking in their native language.

After a weekend of arrivals, International Student Orientation officially began on the morning of August 21.

“Something that I definitely liked was the free food,” said Christian B. Santoso ’10 from Indonesia. “Aside from that, I could gladly say that MIT people are friendly in general.”

Adriana N. Ciccone ’09 from Canada, one of the coordinators of this year’s orientation, described it as a “great opportinity to introduce freshmen to U.S. culture.”

Events included an information session at MIT Medical, a Duck Tour, a shopping trip, a campus tour, a party and quite a few breakfasts, barbeque lunches, and dinners in Boston restaurants.

Schwartz said that international students always tell her that they make their closest friends during International Student Orientation.

Later in an interview, Dhar said that he feels he now knows more about MIT and Boston than some of his American friends. Maitagorri H. Schade ’10 from Germany admitted that International Orientation was more enjoyable than her Freshman Pre-Orientation Program.

Perhaps the only event that was not very popular was the mandatory immigration session. When I was a freshman two years ago, I remember listening to tips about how to avoid violating immigration rules. “The immigration session was boring,” said Ana-Maria A. Piso ’10 from Romania.

The boring session did have one positive effect: helping the students bond. Soon the students were joking about what they knew they should avoid in any case. “Don’t get those American girls pregnant,” said Kellas R. Cameron ’10 from the United Kingdom, with lots of laughter at the table. “It’s going to be difficult but I’ll try,” responded Styliani Gaitani ’10, a female student from Greece.