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Peer advisers provide crucial link to experiences abroad

During International Education Week – Nov. 14-18 – the Gazette is featuring several stories that highlight activities and initiatives helping to advance Queen’s international priorities.

Queen's in the World

When Brianna Mackey (ConEd’18) left for Ireland to study for two semesters at University College Dublin last year, she was extremely excited, as well as anxious and nervous.

Dreaming about studying abroad is one thing. Actually doing it is quite another. There were myriad schools and countries to consider, meetings with professors, forms and documents to obtain and fill out, finances to organize, as well as housing and travel arrangements. The process can be daunting.

So, when Ms. Mackey returned to Queen’s in May, ecstatic about her life-changing experience abroad, she jumped at the chance to become a peer adviser for students considering an international exchange opportunity.

Brianna Mackey (ConEd'18), second from left, visits the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland while studying at University College Dublin. Ms. Mackey is now a peer adviser in the International Programs Office at Queen's. (Supplied photo)

“I had such a remarkable time and didn’t want it to end – so I decided to share with students how much I loved the experience and to also help walk them through the process and keep them calm,” she says.

The peer advising program, run by the International Programs Office (IPO) at Queen’s, is designed to pair students interested in exchange with a returned student who is familiar with the process. Peer advisers work with prospective and nominated exchange students to help them navigate the exchange program. They share their experiences with students one-to-one and at information sessions on campus.

“The peer advising program is of tremendous importance to our student outreach. It complements our marketing efforts but more importantly it provides a venue for returned students to reflect and articulate their experiences – both positive and negative,” says Laura Esford, International Programs Manager, IPO.

“We were concerned that we weren’t providing enough opportunities to contextualize the experience for these students, so our unit began to look for ways to allow students to unpack this experience. We provide an office space, appointment schedule, and comprehensive training program for the peer advisers. The response has been overwhelming. They play a mentoring role, they’re honing their soft skills, and are helping the IPO shape its programming. Plus they bring a delightful energy to our unit.”

Helping students make big decisions

Ms. Mackey says that one of the biggest steps is choosing which school to go to. “There are so many schools that Queen's has an affiliation with and you have to rank your top-choice schools. I made a lot of pros and cons lists in order to narrow down the schools I wanted to apply to, based on course offerings, cultural components, and travel.”

When she meets with students planning to go to the same Dublin exchange program she attended, she helps them through the application process and advises them on some of the courses she took, her favourite cultural aspects of Dublin, and extracurricular activities.

Heather Poechman (Artsci’17) chose Morocco to complete her third year, where she attended École de Gouvernance et d'Économie de Rabat.

“The whole experience was wonderful and challenging. Every aspect of society was different from what I had grown up with. There was definitely culture shock,” says Ms. Poechman, who studies philosophy.

When she was going through the process, she recalls how helpful the IPO was, and she wanted to return the favour to prospective exchange students.

Luke Van Ryn (Artsci'17), shown in the Scottish Highlands, spent a semester at the University of Edinburgh and is now a peer adviser in the International Programs Office. (Supplied photo)

“Students can get into quite a panic as they’re preparing to go and I am happy to see the look of relief on their faces when I’ve offered advice,” she says.

One student she’s working with now is bound for Morocco soon, and after so many meetings and discussions, Ms. Poechman feels she is part of her journey. “I know that I have helped her to not only feel comfortable choosing Morocco, but I have helped assuage her fears about grades, culture shock, classes, transfer credits, how to talk to an academic adviser ... anything and everything related to exchange.”

Art history student Luke Van Ryn (Artsci’17) feels the same way. He returned from a semester at University of Edinburgh in Scotland last May. As he walked the streets of Edinburgh, visited landmark architectural sites, and soaked up Scottish culture, he began to feel like a local. “I loved the experience so much and the place began to feel like home to me.”

Mr. Van Ryn wanted to offer his knowledge to prospective students and help them to understand that while the process is stressful, it’s definitely worth it. “It’s not the easiest thing to do but you won’t regret the effort,” he says.

In fact, the one thing all three returning exchange students agree on is the richness of the experience – they all encourage anyone thinking about an exchange program to at least come into the IPO and see what the options are.

“It’s a life-changing experience. You come back a different person,” says Mr. Van Ryn.

For more information about exchange programs and the peer advising program, please visit the IPO website.