Welcoming the Newcomer: From Mentee to Mentor

By Cecilia Cai, PAIR Volunteer

Coming to the U.S. 10 years ago, I would have never imagined how much my immigration journey would change me and help me grow to become the person I am today. I was still in the sixth grade when my family and I emigrated to the U.S., in search of better education. Initially excited about a glamorous new life, I was soon disappointed when I enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at a middle school in a small town. The language barrier isolated me as an outcast. For some time, I frequently cried when I returned home. During these tough times, my parents, teachers, and friends encouraged me to overcome the difficulties. Slowly, I became more involved with school organizations and started to enjoy middle school. I still remember one of my favorite middle school ESL teachers, Mrs. Forton, who always smiled and patiently and taught us about American traditions and culture with fun lessons. She even stayed after school sometimes to play games with us and organize international parties for us. She also helped me to become involved with an after-school program and an Outdoor Adventures club, which were both similar to PAIR programs. We had tutoring and interactive games that helped the ESL students get to know each other better, as well as field trips once a week to nearby parks. Looking back, if it weren’t for my caring teachers and the mentors who led the after-school programs, my English would not have improved so quickly, and my middle school experience would not be nearly as enjoyable. At the time, I couldn’t fully understand or appreciate the benefits of such programs, but as an adult, I now realize how much impact they had on me as a newly-arrived immigrant youth.

When I first learned about PAIR as a sophomore in college, my first thought was how difficult it must be for refugee youth to adjust to American culture. Their parents might not be able to help them with schoolwork, their teachers might be too busy to give them individual attention, and their classmates may even discriminate against them. From my personal experiences, I knew after-school programs can be valuable for a child’s personal growth, so I volunteered with PAIR regularly and mentored several young refugees. PAIR has been a very rewarding experience for me. I have seen the transformation of some of the middle school kids from being shy and quiet to active and talkative. With the high school refugee youths I mentored, I also enjoyed sharing my personal story with them and listening to their stories about their countries, their immigration experiences, and their families and friends.

Cecilia leading high school students in service to beautify a local community center

Cecilia leading high school students in service to beautify a local community center

Sharing such stories helped me to bond with my mentees and build our friendship. I realized that many of the refugee youth came to the U.S. with aspirations to live a better life, to live the American dream. However, most of them do not understand the competitiveness of American society, and how much they need to study and work in order to achieve their dreams. They need mentors in their lives to guide them in the right direction, provide resources, and encourage them to overcome difficulties.

This March, I led a delegation of UH students representing PAIR at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference in Washington, D.C. In one session, President Clinton recounted a story about a boy who grew up in a low-income neighborhood, who eventually went to a prestigious college and became very successful. On the other hand, his brothers were involved with gangs and were either killed or in jail. What was so special about the boy who broke out of the cycle of poverty? He had a mentor in his life, someone who cared about him and asked whether he did his homework. President Clinton emphasized to us how much a mentor can change someone’s life, and he called every one of us to become a mentor for youth.

Cecilia with two of her middle school mentees

Cecilia with two of her middle school mentees

I am thankful to PAIR for the opportunity to mentor refugee youth, and I want to encourage everyone reading to consider the importance of mentors in your life, and how you can also help at-risk youth by volunteering with PAIR. I am fortunate to have had good teachers as mentors, such as Mrs. Forton, and PAIR students are fortunate to have caring PAIR volunteers as their mentors. Middle school students, in particular, are at a difficult age and may not always seem appreciative of the support you provide. However, I believe they will later come to realize the benefits of PAIR. Perhaps ten years from now, they’ll also be graduating from college and writing a blog post about a favorite mentor in middle school, and it may be about you, a PAIR volunteer.

Cecilia was recently recognized by the mayor of Houston for her volunteer work with PAIR.