Unleashing the power of mentorship: arMentor is revolutionizing university transitions for Armenian students

By Khatchig Anteblian

As a university student, it is easy to become caught up in your academic and social life. Balancing work and studies is challenging enough, and finding time for oneself is even harder. However, for one 21-year-old science student at McMaster University, the desire to help her community provided strong motivation to overcome these challenges and take action.

Sareen Karshafian is among the many students who graduated high school during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was thrust into the world of higher education and had to navigate a labyrinth of options while confined to her home and a computer screen. Like many of her peers, she was forced to put her extracurricular activities and community involvement on hold. “My whole first year was online, so the transition felt really strange. It didn’t feel like university yet,” Sareen explains during our recent conversation.

Things became even more difficult after her first year when she had to move to Hamilton for university. Suddenly, she found herself in an unfamiliar city, away from her community and support network. “I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t know what the campus looked like or how to enroll in my classes. I had to figure it all out by myself,” Sareen says. Even simple tasks like finding cheap textbooks or choosing which professors’ classes proved challenging to navigate alone.

All it took was just one conversation with her younger cousin to set Sareen on a path of action. “[My cousin] is interested in sciences, so he asked me questions related to my program and university,” she says. Sareen realized that her cousin was fortunate to have a family member in university who shared his interests. “Some don’t have anyone they can talk to. Maybe they’re the first [in their families] to attend university.”

For Sareen, the solution was obvious. “It’s simple to connect two individuals in the same field who are just a few years apart and let them help each other out.”

And so, arMentor was born.

The project, which was launched in late February, aims to bridge the gap between students preparing to transition to university and university students willing to share their guidance and experiences. Razmig Kababejian, a third-year psychology student at York University, was one of the first people to sign up as a mentor. As the president of the Armenian Students’ Association (ASA) at his university, Razmig is no stranger to community involvement and volunteering. He has also participated in a peer mentoring program at his university. “The reason I joined [arMentor] is the same reason I joined the peer mentor program,” Razmig says, discussing his involvement. “I realized what a big help it is to have a mentor.”

Razmig believes that what sets arMentor apart from similar projects is that it was created by Armenians for Armenians. “We all share the same background,” he says.”Of course, not everyone’s experience is the same but we all have somewhat similar experiences.” According to him, this shared heritage and common ground make the project unique and more personal.

Razmig explains that the initial transition to university can be complicated and confusing.“If I can make life even only a little bit easier for someone, I would achieve what I wanted,“ he says. Sareen also knows firsthand how intimidating it can be for high school students to seek help, even though most schools offer opportunities for graduates to visit and discuss their university experiences. “Remembering how I was in high school and how my classmates were, you never really feel comfortable [reaching out] after the fact,” Sareen says. “You just think they’ll be bothered.”

The goal of arMentor is to eliminate the barriers to seeking help by connecting each high school student who signs up with a mentor studying in the field they’re interested in. The idea is that they will establish a connection through one-on-one communication in an informal setting that could last throughout university and beyond. Sareen emphasizes that there’s much more to university than just getting an education. “How do I navigate campus? How do I socialize? How do I meet new people? How do I approach my professors? All these things add up and make it more intimidating,” she says. “Having someone to quickly ask, get their opinion and advice would help a lot.”

Currently, Sareen is solely managing the project, overseeing its Instagram page, handling sign-up forms, pairing mentors with high school students, and facilitating their initial connection. She is hopeful that the project will grow enough to have an entire team running it instead of just herself. She also envisions hosting meet-and-greets and social events to bring all the mentors and mentees together. “It’s important to network and connect one-on-one, but bringing all the mentors and all the mentees together would be important as well,” she says.

After the introduction by Sareen, it is up to the mentors and their mentees to agree on a comfortable pace and method of communication. Although the number of people signing up is gradually increasing, the initial demand surprised Sareen. “I thought [finding] mentors would be the hardest part, but that’s actually been the easiest,“ she says. According to Sareen, the real challenge has been getting high school students to overcome their fear of reaching out.

Razmig encourages anyone considering signing up to let go of their inhibitions and go for it. “To students, I would say, ‘Why not sign up?’ You’ll receive valuable firsthand advice at the cost of just an email or a text.” And to potential mentors, Razmig believes that even if you help just one person a little bit, you’re already making a positive impact.

Sareen hopes that the students who sign up to receive help now will become mentors themselves in the future, continuing the cycle. “Armenians always have a special connection,” Sareen says. “I think it’s important for us to stick together and support each other’s growth.”