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Peer support programme helps international students settle in

International students who arrived before the border closure have been the first to participate in UCOL’s Exchange Network, a programme to help them settle into life at UCOL and overcome the challenges of living in a new country.

Launched at the start of 2020, UCOL’s Exchange Network is a peer network and mentoring programme for international students. It is designed to counteract the feelings of loneliness and isolation that international students often deal with, and help them adjust to their new environment.

While the COVID-19 lockdown slowed the implementation of the programme, the Exchange Network is back up and running. At its core are monthly group sessions where students are invited to socialise, share food, and plan trips to experience New Zealand’s environment and culture. These sessions are also a chance for UCOL Student Success staff to check in and discuss topics chosen by the students, such as visa advice and making friends in New Zealand.

On top of the group sessions, a team of international students act as mentors or Tuakana (the MĬÅori term for elder sibling), helping new arrivals through their first months at UCOL. The Tuakana have also helped run UCOL Orientation and community events such as the Festival of Cultures and the Holi Festival.

"It’s about students leading new students, as they’ve already walked in their shoes," says UCOL senior student success advisor Cam Lock.

Lock says a key aspect of the Exchange Network is that it is driven by the students themselves.

"There is lots of evidence that suggests international students are far more likely to seek a peer when they need social or emotional support rather than someone they perceive to be in position of power, even if that is support staff. Therefore we’re facilitating those peer-to-peer relationships and encouraging the mentors to refer students to appropriate UCOL support staff."

At the start of the year, eight Tuakana completed a three-day leadership retreat at the remote Glenburn Station on the Wairarapa coast. The training focuses on mentoring, peer support, and community service.

One of those Tuakana was Ami Mani. She experienced student-to-student mentoring in her home country of India and wanted to help students adjust to life in New Zealand.

"When I came to New Zealand last year I had a lot of trouble settling in. It can be hard to find a good job and get used to the different culture. It’s easier for international students to approach other students for help first, so I feel really happy and proud to be part of this team."

The Exchange Network is funded by the Ministry of Education’s Student Wellbeing Fund, which supports new programmes designed to meet the wellbeing needs of international students. The Network also works alongside Palmerston North City Council’s Welcoming Communities programme, which aims to build connections between new immigrants and existing residents.

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