Peer Mentoring Program Helps Students From China Adjust to College Life in Pittsburgh

  • Pitt to You student ambassador Peter Zheng holds a Pitt flag at the Great Wall of China this June. Zheng is studying political science and economics, among other subjects, with a concentration on global governance and China.
  • Zikai Zhang hugs Monica Merante, as program manager Sarah Popovich looks on. Zhang, from Wuhan, China, is considering a sociology major at Pitt.
  • Zhengjianing Dong (left) reacts to an ice-breaker game with Xiaoyao Qu, Juliette Smith and Ross Micka.
  • The first Pitt to You program this past summer brought 11 current students and several faculty members to China to serve as Pitt ambassadors for a group of incoming international students. A reunion during the first week of classes was the second step in easing the transition to American college life and building connections.

Eleven student envoys brought Pitt to China on a first-ever trip to welcome incoming international students before they even arrived at the University of Pittsburgh campus.

Through peer-to-peer mentoring, the Pitt to You program — which had its first outing over the summer — seeks to ease Chinese students' cultural transition to the United States.

Zikai Zhang, from Wuhan, China, is a first-year student considering a major in sociology or computer science. He had never been to the U.S. before arriving at Pitt. 

“I knew pretty much nothing about the real situation in America,” Zhang said. “I registered for this program as soon as I knew about it, because I thought it would be a great opportunity to get in touch with American people and learn about what kinds of things they find interesting, and how they manage their college life.”

Adjusting to college carries extra challenges for international students, which the Pitt to You program helped alleviate by hosting workshops in Beijing and Shanghai before the start of the term. Incoming undergraduate and graduate students learned from their Pittsburgh peers what to expect from residence and dining halls, what campus resources are available and, of course, all about Pitt traditions.

Become an ambassador

Applications for the 2018 Pitt to You program in China student ambassador positions are now open to sophomores and juniors.

Visit the Asian Studies Center's website for details about the program and instructions to apply. Applications are due by noon, Monday, Oct. 9. 

They also were introduced to key University administrators, like people in the Office of International Services, which Zhang said made it easy to know where to go with questions about things like federal documents he's had to fill out since arriving at Pitt. 

In China, the students were joined by several University staff members, including Provost Patricia E. Beeson; Ariel Armony, director of the University Center for International Studies; Jim Cook, acting director of the Asian Studies Center; Sara Jones, assistant director of the Office of International Services; Sarah Popovich, program manager in the Office of Cross Cultural and Leadership Development; and Eddie Macham, area coordinator in the Office of Residence Life.

Special alumni receptions facilitated connections among incoming and current students, Pitt alumni and administrators. The Distinguished Alumni Reception in Beijing, hosted by Pitt alumnus and Chinese business executive Frank Ning (BUS '86G), served as the marquee event of the trip.

“I hope that as a result of the Pitt to You program, Chinese students will feel that Pitt has already invested in their success,” said Popovich. “I hope that these students will have some peace of mind that, when they get to campus, there will be people they know and relationships they can count on.”

Pitt junior and student ambassador Peter Zheng, said he was happy to advise his mentee, Zhang, and other students as they prepared to enter Pitt for the fall term.

“What I hope people understand is that international students are just like you and me: students with dreams, students with courage, students with excitement, students with fear," Zheng said. "They're Pitt Panthers just like us, and being a Panther means creating an inclusive environment where all Panthers can succeed together, no matter our background.”

Indeed, while the primary focus of the trip was to provide Chinese students with the resources and connections needed to thrive in the U.S., the trip also offered an important developmental opportunity for the students who served as ambassadors.

They're Pitt Panthers just like us, and being a Panther means creating an inclusive environment where all Panthers can succeed together, no matter our background.

Peter Zheng, student ambassador

“Many of our domestic Pitt students had never left the country, so for them, this was a really eye-opening experience,” said Popovich. “I think traveling in general makes you more resilient. As a result of the trip, I think students are more confident and skilled at problem-solving. And, just as important, they have become more empathetic.”

During the first week of classes on the Pittsburgh campus, the Pitt to You group reconnected. It was “like a family reunion in another country,” Zhang said.

Zhang and Zheng have continued to keep in touch during the semester, like many of the mentor/mentee pairings. More events and Pittsburgh excursions are planned throughout the year for the whole group of Pitt to You participants.