In recent months, studying online has become the norm for many of our international students until they’re able to join us on campus. But even as we adjust to this new way of life, having access to a support system is vital. Enter La Trobe University’s eFriends: current students who volunteer their time to answer queries about living and studying in Australia through Facebook or Wechat.
In previous years, the eFriends program has run for 10 weeks each semester. But with the challenges we’ve all faced in 2020, Helen Zhang from our International Student Services team recognised it was important for commencing students to have additional support.
‘This year, we acknowledge the new challenges our international students are facing – so we’ve decided to keep the program open to new students commencing studies in 2020 for 12 months, or longer if needed,’ says Helen.
‘Our eFriends are doing a brilliant job of supporting our new students and work tirelessly responding to student enquiries.
‘We are so appreciative and in admiration of each of them. Honestly, we couldn’t run the program without their dedication and commitment.’
Students supporting students
It’s not just students who benefit from the eFriends program – it’s also the volunteers themselves.
Penny Wang came to La Trobe from China to study a Bachelor of Finance and has been involved with eFriends for the past few months.
‘I decided to join this program because I wanted to help others, but in an official role,’ she says. ‘And now eFriends is offered on online platforms, we’re able to guide students to find information in the most efficient way and solve the problem, rather than leaving them to navigate things themselves.’
‘It’s just like brothers and sisters – having someone to guide you from the same nationality or background, it can be comforting.’
It’s that shared student experience that also inspired Clement Sefa-Nyarko to volunteer as an eFriend.
Clement travelled from Ghana to study a PhD in History at La Trobe. During his first weeks in Australia, he quickly learned how important it can be to have a supportive friend by your side.
‘When I arrived in Melbourne, I was fortunate to already know someone through an existing network. Even then, the amount of information I had to take in, the search for accommodation and nitty-gritty of navigating around the city and La Trobe campus were almost overwhelming,’ he says.
‘So, after settling in, I was driven by a desire to share my experience as an international student with prospective others.’
Helping out in uncertain times
After seeing the eFriend programme advertised on the La Trobe International Student Services Facebook page, Clement knew that it was the perfect platform for him to help out new students.
‘I was particularly enthusiastic about it because the eFriend platform is designed to provide guidance even before students set off from their home countries,’ he says.
Both Penny and Clement have helped guide students through the enrolment and subject selection process, as well as where to find information on key dates.
They also recognise it’s important to support new students at the moment, since any anxiety about starting at university is amplified due to COVID-19.
‘Whenever a student mentions they’re anxious about travel and studying restrictions, I assure them about La Trobe’s empathy and continuous advocacy with the Australian government to ensure that decisions are considerate of the needs of international students,’ says Clement.
Students have been quick to show their appreciation for the eFriends program on the International Student Services Facebook page, with one student posting:
‘Being able to interact with different La Trobians who have been at this university for a long time is very comforting to international students who might feel nervous about moving to a new country, continent and space. I am still in my home country but feel like l am already at La Trobe.’
Building life skills and professional experience
Students who volunteer with eFriends will receive a reference letter and a certificate in recognition of their contribution. The program is also the perfect opportunity to boost communication skills and gain experience in professional training and leadership development.
Penny and Clement thoroughly enjoy volunteering as eFriends and encourage other students to get involved.
‘Even though it is a volunteering job, you’ll feel a sense of achievement,’ says Penny. ‘There’s no regrets because you’re doing something good.’
Clement echoes this sentiment.
‘The eFriend volunteering programme is rewarding due to its flexibility and opportunity to interact with a multicultural community,’ he says.
‘Anyone who is interested in building their skills in social media management, customer care service, communication, teamwork, decision-making, time management and leadership – I encourage them to sign up and get involved.’
La Trobe International Student Services is about to start recruiting eFriends for the upcoming term intake. If you’re looking to build professional skills and help new students prepare for university life, follow the La Trobe International Student Services Facebook page for more information.