Unconventional means were attempted to get Polel Ba acclimated to American life after she transferred mid-year into a regular U.S. middle school about five years ago.
Her family was refugees from Senegal, West Africa. Polel came overseas speaking French and two African languages, Wolof and Fula. She was misunderstood frequently because of that barrier. Her grades were initially poor and she withdrew socially in her new homeland.
She even remembers waving away people in the cafeteria, wanting to endure silently in her own way. That notion wouldn’t hold due to a persistent administrator.
“The principal started shoving people at me, doing it every single day until I decided to give in,” she recalled.
It was a means to an end to spur communication and unity, but sort of organized chaos. Yet Ba’s story isn’t unusual for many foreign students coming to America and initially finding few common bonds.
Mix that predicament with a sense of homesickness and loneliness and it can be a recipe for isolation. It was this type of backstory that prompted a change at Community College of Aurora’s two diverse campuses, beginning this past summer.
International ESL academic advisor Emelda Jones had long ago come to the realization that international students coming to CCA needed some kind of support system through her study of four-year institutions.
The idea was hatched that another foreign-born student already entrenched at the college would help serve as mentor. Tier two of the plan would also include an American student. Jones sought someone young enough to understand the system and CCA’s culture, with top-tier grades behind the social component. That put Ascent students immediately on the radar, if they were willing, to aid F1 visa students specifically. A summer meeting cemented the idea.
There are now currently 18 Ascent students, 20 international students being mentored, and 12 international student mentors involved in the initiative.
Ba, who has attended CCA since her junior year at Rangeview H.S., has been heavily involved within the Ascent contingent mentoring international students and understands better than most the concept behind the pairings.
“I wish they had it when I came to the U.S.,” Ba said. “It’s really good for them. It will speed up the time for them to start trusting people. The hardest part, more than language, is that they feel they’re being made fun of because they don’t speak the language.”
The culture piece also is important. “It’s hard for them to make friends if they don’t get used to the culture. Many try to stay with their own culture, since they don’t have friends. But it’s important for them to get used to it so they don’t feel so lonely. They won’t always be there.”
Attempts are made to pair foreign students up by country or home language, if possible. Most F1 visa students are typically between 19 and 26 and can’t work. The initial thought was to pair them with someone in that age range. But Jones felt the personalities of the Ascent students would mesh better.
“These are students with high GPAs and they’re involved in 15 credits and have fulfilled their high school requirements. So those were the main reasons: age and the fact that they’re not only free-spirited but resourceful as well. If they don’t know the answers, they will definitely go out and get the answers for you.”
All of the mentees have to possess some proficiency with English because CCA’s ESL program doesn’t offer the most basic level. All are beyond at least the community ESL level in terms of language skills.
“It’s all been positive,” Jones said. “On a regular basis, the international students come to me and they’re so happy they have two mentors the Ascent student and the international student, as well. Some of them have asked if they can get another Ascent student because they get so attached to that one person and they want another person to befriend.”
As the program has evolved, the English as a Second Language population at the college also has become involved in the program as a means to practice their English.
“I’ve been overseas so I know that it’s nice to have someone who’s already been there or someone who’s native,” said adviser Wendy Jenkins, who works hand-in-hand with Jones on the project, using her experiences in peer mentoring with new CCA faculty and working within Academic Enrichment as the springboard.
“Plus, I’ve been a new student in a lot of places and the more friends and the more contact you have, the more likely you are to be successful,” Jenkins added.
Some of the countries represented by CCA international students involved in the program emanate from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, India, South Africa, Ivory Coast, France, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan and Swaziland.
Theo Brun came to CCA from Lyon, France about two years ago. He temporarily moved to Aurora to live with an American family and improve his English-speaking abilities at the college level.
Brun’s international mentor, Jesus Loza, from Lima, Peru, has been there to help guide him on some of the ancillary issues that many around campus take for granted.
“It was really helpful,” Brun said. “He is a good friend. I had trouble. I needed to find an apartment or place to live, so I asked him. Every time I have a problem or stuff like that, I ask. He knows the places, the people, everything, better than me here.”
Loza gave Brun his cellphone number in case of emergencies and introduced him to members of the International Student Association.
“It took me about one year to get introduced to these activities,” said Loza, who’s in his fourth semester at CCA. “I know when you come to this country and you don’t have too (many) people to talk or socialize (with) you need these free activities. At first, we did college activities then we looked for activities outside of college.”
The two have gone to the movies and Estes Park, among those non-CCA excursions.
There are early talks about potentially rolling the Business population that has a high international component and/or Trio students into the program in the future.
Jones and Jenkins may soon present their initial successes with the initiative at a meeting of department chairs.
“It’s the start of something big,” Jones said.