When he first signed up to become a cultural mentor for new international students at UNSW, Stephen Chikazaza never imagined he would one day be leading the program as a staff member, let alone forming part of a dance group for a wedding in Bangladesh.
The International Student Experience Unit's Cultural Mentoring Program introduces new international students to a senior student 'buddy'. Cultural Mentors are available to answer questions about learning at UNSW or living in Sydney and can provide new students with insight into Australian cultures and customs.
Chikazaza took part as a student while studying at UNSW and now leads the international engagement team, training and supervising the cultural mentors to support new international students. He believes the success of the program comes down to the passion of the student volunteers.
“We put students at the forefront with the Cultural Mentors program,” he said.
“And they're great at supporting the students because some of them had that support when they first came, so they want to provide that same support. And then for some of them, they did not actually have that support when they first came, or they found it hard to connect, and they don't want other students to feel the same.
“So we just provide a platform where the students can come together, they're the ones that actually then develop those relationships and make everything happen.”
The Cultural Mentors program is also where Chikazaza met Fahim Alam, who completed a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and a Master of Commerce (Finance) at UNSW, when he signed up to become a mentor.
“I remember when Fahim applied, and one day after our training he was telling me about his interest in photography,” Chikazaza said.
“Little did I know at that time, he was actually really good. He had a series where he would just take photos of people that he met on campus, off campus and put it up on his social media. And that's one of the ways he connected with so many people. He made friends with a lot of exchange students, a lot of local students, a lot of international students.”
Through these connections, Chikazaza is now part of a group of 60 UNSW students and staff who will be travelling to Bangladesh for Alam’s wedding next month. The group is eagerly preparing for the wedding, with dance rehearsals already taking place.
“My understanding is that a wedding in Bangladesh is like a big festival,” Chikazaza said.
“It goes for days and dancing is so much a part of their culture. There are a number of dances that they've organised, probably about 20.”
Stories like this highlight the true success of the Cultural Mentors program and the lifelong connections it creates between members of the UNSW community. Chikazaza has been in his role for six years now and still finds the depth of the connections incredible to witness.
“Even now, some of the students that were mentors when I first started my role and have now graduated, still meet up and travel the world together,” he said.
“There are a lot of great stories and a number of them are overseas working and quite often they'll send an email or a message on social media just updating us on what they're up to.
As for what makes the program inspire such strong emotional ties, Chikazaza is contemplative.
“I think it's the aspect of connecting. I think when students come to UNSW, especially international students, they're also looking for connection and a sense of belonging,” he said.
“And just the experience of meeting people from other countries. Australia is multicultural, the university within itself is just a great melting pot of cultures and I think that's what students find fascinating - meeting students from different cultures.”
The Cultural Mentors program is open to all new international students and is complemented by a wide range of other activities to assist students settle into life in Australia such as campus tours, coastal walks, zoo visits, shopping trips, barbeques and fundraisers.