Can international students benefit from an intergenerational buddy or mentorship program?
That question arose by chance in Spring 2018 when Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) and the American University International Accelerator Program (IAP) were housed in the same building. OLLI offers classes for retired (or close to retired) senior citizens who wish to remain intellectually stimulated. IAP helps international students adapt to US university life, including overcoming culture shock and developing career skills. Why not give a partnership a try? Together, the two programs pair area seniors with university students for mentoring and guidance.
Bridging the Intergenerational Gap
According to Jawee Perla, IAP student services director, the challenge was to figure out what kind of program would benefit both retirees and students. IAP graduate students felt like a natural fit because of their maturity.
As part of the Master’s Accelerator Program (MAP), students earn credits toward their master’s degree while receiving personalized English-language instruction, as well as dedicated workshops and training. They can also apply to get matched with an OLLI mentor.
On their applications, students list their major and share their career goals, as well as their favorite spots in DC, hobbies, and leisure activities. Students also write a personal introduction to their potential OLLI partner. Both IAP and OLLI representatives then review applications and select potential matches.
Typically, the program kicks off with a meet-and-greet between new master’s students and OLLI students. Then, new and continuing members join for a group dinner. When the program met in person, pre-COVID, the team had several lunch and chat events and either a master’s student or an OLLI student would lead a discussion. They also took trips to Mount Vernon or had get-togethers at an OLLI member’s house.
“We ask students and partners to meet once a week,” says Rebecca Karlin, student services advisor and OLLI program manager.
Due to COVID-19, many meetings now take place via Zoom. However, despite the pandemic, the program has remained strong. “There is more of a group dynamic,” says Karlin. “Pairings are often on Zoom, but we also get together every couple of weeks as a group.”
Group meetings foster cross-cultural understanding: During the week of Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day, for example, a Chinese student did a traditional dance; another made dumplings with her mom and grandmother. OLLI students explained the history of Valentine’s Day.
Exploring Cultural Differences
Unlike a strictly professional mentor program, the OLLI partnership offers MAP students personal support as well as an opportunity to discuss cultural differences. As Perla explains, mentorship is not officially the program’s purpose. It is about pairing students and retirees based on mutual interests, so both have a conversation partner.
Pairs often get together for coffee, to visit museums and national monuments, or to spend time at the mentor’s home. Visits can be educational, as both OLLI and MAP students discuss their classes and cultures. International students often ask OLLI partners for advice on American culture and norms, such as slang terms or how the Supreme Court works. One OLLI member even counseled a graduate student on their relationship.
For Beri, an American University graduate student from China, discussing topics from politics to cultural norms helped her move past stereotypes. The first time Beri was invited to her OLLI partner’s home, she got lost and was completely overwhelmed.
“My feelings were very mixed,” she recalls. “But I still spent a wonderful night with those new friends.”
She was particularly concerned about the language barrier, especially her pronunciation, and shared her anxiety with Betty, her OLLI partner. Betty advised her to tell others she was looking to improve her English. Beri realized her friends would be happy to help, which made her feel more comfortable.
But it was when Betty and her husband, Peter, helped her move apartments during the pandemic that she felt “a sense of belonging for the first time here … I never expected to meet two mentors who make me fall in love with American culture and have a significant effect on my outlook of the US and China.”
What’s Next for the OLLI/IAP Partnership
The OLLI Program is moving to another building, so the two programs will no longer share the same space. But because the program has been successful, even virtually, Perla and Karlin are less concerned the dynamic will change.
Of course, without the physical proximity, the program partnership might never have formed. Having large numbers of students passing each other in the hallway — students of different racial, linguistic, generational, and cultural backgrounds — has a humanizing effect.
“Skepticism exists, even in highly internationalized metropolitan campuses,” observes Perla. “But whenever people get to know each other, that disappears.”
This program gets rid of stereotypes. OLLI members really advocate for these students. Everyone who participates in the program benefits in some way.” — Rebecca Karlin, student services advisor, OLLI program manager
Perla is hopeful that with the excitement generated by the program, more scholars will take an interest and study its impact. “I would love if we could partner more with academics and look at outcomes in a systematic way, in ways we have not been able to do.” He points out that while they have analyzed participant profiles, they have not analyzed the intangible program outcomes, such as the benefits of intercultural and intergenerational relationships.
“A lot of students may not understand what it is at first,” says Karlin. “But once they are in the program, they really do enjoy it. Even after they leave the program, they keep in touch with their partners. It is more than a one-semester relationship. A lot of strong partnerships have come out of this.”
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