Last week, the University of Oklahoma welcomed its new class of international students, who arrived in Norman with great excitement. On Wednesday August 15th, the students attended their first gathering on campus, the stage of New International Student Orientation experience (NISO) entitled “Crimson Connection.” This year’s class is comprised of 450 students from over 80 countries, including 185 exchange students, 63 Davis United World College scholars, and over 100 graduate students.
Early Wednesday morning, the Oklahoma Memorial Union was abuzz with NISO peer mentors — OU students who volunteer to lead small groups throughout the Crimson Connection program, and to continue to mentor these students during their first semester. Within each group, students and two peer mentors participate in team-building activities, have Q&A time, and spend the day learning from various speakers about campus resources, managing culture shock, and succeeding in the college classroom.
“Crimson Connection is most international students’ first chance to get connected to the OU community and to learn about the resources that are available to them on campus,” explains Mary Beth Polk, Senior International Programs Coordinator at OU. “The goals of the day are to help students meet new friends, learn about on-campus resources, and to ultimately build community and help ease their adjustment.”
Sarah Keen, a sophomore and first-time NISO peer mentor, expressed excitement Wednesday morning at the prospect of meeting new students from around the world. “I’m from a very small town, and it’s not very diverse there at all,” she said. “I really like being able to connect with people who are from different cultures, and being able to broaden my worldview.”
Another first-year mentor, Will Hanson-Regan, shared Keen’s excitement as he set up for the days events in Beaird Lounge. “I like meeting new people in general,” he said. “This summer I went to France, and so I was kind of on the other side of things. I really enjoyed our guide and we became good friends. So I wanted to give back what I experienced.”
Each Crimson Connection group is assigned a team name to help them learn about campus, i.e. Team Farzaneh Hall, Team Owen Field or Team Lindsey Street. They begin with “ice breaker” activities and create a team cheer. Once they’ve sufficiently bonded and come out of their shells, they navigate their day of learning together — having lots of fun along the way.
Peer mentors, Polk explains, are a vital part of International students’ first-semester experience. “Peer mentors are new students’ lifeline for getting involved and getting to know the campus,” she says. “They stay in contact with them, create events, and strategize ways for new international students to feel part of the OU community from their first day on campus. It’s a really rewarding program and I enjoy seeing it grow each semester.”
For Joaquim Amorim, a senior international student from Angola, being a NISO mentor is his way of returning the support he received as a freshman. “I know that coming to a new place, you can kind of get lost sometimes,” he says. “You need a guide, someone who has already experienced it, to show you around and help you navigate and find resources.”
Amorim notes that mentoring is also a great way to develop strong leadership skills and meet people from many different cultures. His own NISO orientation still resonates with him three years later. “It was so memorable,” he says. “I made a lot of friends that I’m still in contact with today. Some of them, we’re going to graduate together.”
Amorim, Keen and Hanson-Regan all shared the same goal for their small mentor groups: to make students feel welcome. “It must be very difficult for them. They come here and there are so many differences and so many new things that they’ve never experienced,” Keen says. “It’s important to be there for them and help them to become accustomed to our special little school.”
Amorim, who spent the morning circulating the room with the ease and purpose of an experienced mentor, put it even more simply: “I want to approach them, talk to them and tell them ‘you are home.’”
For more information on Crimson Connection and volunteering as a NISO mentor, visit the NISO experience website.