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Campus & Community

For Teenage Refugees, Homework Help—and Down-to-Earth Insights

Terps Mentor High Schoolers New to Country

By Colleen Crowley M.Jour. ’19

Peer to Peer

Photo courtesy of International Rescue Committee

As part of the Peer to Peer mentorship program, UMD student Molly Schreier works with refugees now attending Parkdale High School in Riverdale Park.

Shivani Shah immigrated to Canada from India when she was just 2 years old, yet she was soon old enough to remember her parents putting themselves through school and guiding her as she learned English.

“In the formative years of your life, I understand how important it is to have a mentor, someone who can help you when you’re new to a country,” said Shah, a junior biological sciences and Spanish double major.

Drawing inspiration from her experience, she founded Peer to Peer, a mentorship program that connects University of Maryland students with high school-aged children of refugee families in the local community.

It launched in the fall as a partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Silver Spring, with Peer to Peer providing the volunteers needed to expand the IRC Silver Spring’s mentorship program to Prince George’s County.

Peer to Peer members during the semester mentored approximately 20 refugee students twice a week at nearby Parkdale High School. During these sessions, the Terps helped with homework and ran educational activities. On Saturdays, mentors and mentees also met at a library in Prince George’s County, with college and SAT preparation lessons every other weekend for those looking to pursue higher education.

Lindsay Dusard, out of school specialist for the IRC, said most of the mentored students are from Afghanistan, while others come from Eritrea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and various countries in Central America. Of the Afghan students, most were forced to flee their country for fear of being targeted by the Taliban because family members assisted U.S. forces.

Two sisters, originally from Afghanistan, spoke about the most difficult aspects of their new lives in the United States. “We don’t know their language,” said Shaista, a tenth-grader. “And making new friends, and the rules, because it is totally different from our country.”

Dusard agreed that language access is the most obvious challenge that the students face. Through the mentoring program, she said, “the students are able to review concepts discussed in class at a more manageable pace.”

Shyueh-Rwong Clare Cheng, an instructor at Parkdale High School in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program, said, “A lot of the kids need one-on-one attention that a lot of teachers can’t give.” The mentees, who are only a few years younger than the Peer to Peer university students themselves, are able to lower their guard during mentoring sessions and ask questions on work they might be too shy to ask in class, Cheng said.

She and Dusard said that the students, some of whom are still processing the traumas they faced in their country of origin, are flourishing with the help of the peer mentoring. “Almost all of them are on the honor roll now,” added Dusard.

Shah hopes to expand Peer to Peer to other schools. “When you have a crisis that’s so big and on a global scale, it’s easy to feel like you can’t do anything to help,” she said. “But I think it’s really important that students remember that getting involved on a smaller scale in your own community is sometimes the best way to make a difference.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.