Letters from the Dorm: here’s what mentoring university students from China taught me

By Tacye Hong, University of Toronto

How much you learn from studying abroad depends on how willing you are to immerse yourself in the culture

By Tacye Hong, University of Toronto |

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The end of the university semester doesn’t just mean the end of classes and lectures – it also signals the conclusion of my role as a mentor. As part of a mentorship programme for the Statistical Sciences Department course at the University of Toronto, I looked after a group of first-year students.

The programme has group sessions where mentors give advice to younger students, and organise activities to help them get used to life at the university. I was given eight mentees, all of whom came from China. The whole experience was a fun way for me to relive my first year. 

The group sessions on academic life made me remember the hard choices I had to make when selecting programmes, thinking that every decision I made would affect my life. The freshmen were no different. After four years of being an undergraduate, though, I’ve come to realise a career doesn’t have to be bound by the degree you choose. Yes, it matters to a certain degree (pun intended) but your experiences might mean your future lies in a different direction.

This, though, was where the similarities ended. After getting to know my mentees better, I began to realise just how different our experiences could be. I have always learned through study sessions, but they relied on outside Chinese tutorial classes to learn.

There’s nothing wrong with these tutorial services, but it was very frustrating to see. For me, there is no better feeling than figuring out a complex concept with my friends at the library, and these students haven’t ever experienced that. Tutorial classes rob them of a chance to learn how to think independently, too, and they’re an expensive add-on on top of university fees.

It became clear to me they weren’t settling in well in Canada. Outside Chinatown, they seemed to have no interest in exploring or talking to the locals. I had jumped at the chance to visit museums and soak

in Canadian culture.

My mentees would communicate in Mandarin, even though I am not very fluent. Studying in Canada is an amazing opportunity, where they can perfect their English. So it was disappointing to see that some of them were not taking advantage of this. I realise that they are more comfortable with speaking Mandarin, but I’ve seen other international students who are more willing to make friends or step outside their comfort zone. If you get an opportunity to study abroad, why not really seize the chance to understand how a “foreign” culture works?

Edited by Ginny Wong