edseed and VIP.fund
Christelle Barakat, SVR volunteer interview with
Bashar Alallawi and Tasha Toth, Volunteers, edseed and VIP.fund

March 3, 2021

Bashar Alallawi and Tasha Toth are both ardent supporters of edSeed and VIP.fund’s Peer-to-Peer Mentor Program. Between the two of them, they play different roles within these initiatives: student, volunteer, mentor (Tasha), and mentee (Bashar). Bashar is also a Syrian refugee living in Jordan and studying Software Engineering. At the date of the interview, Bashar shared with us that he had been volunteering with VIP.fund for eight months, helping with event coordination and supporting public relations and communication efforts. His passion for volunteering with edSeed and VIP.fund stem from his desire to pay it forward and to give back to individuals who have helped him throughout his journey. 

Tasha is currently based in New Jersey and has been with VIP.fund for seven months. Being a Palestinian American and knowing the struggles that immigrant and refugee students face, she can aid others through her own experiences. As a mentor and volunteer, she helps with content creation, volunteer coordination, and communication. Her bilingual skills come in handy, particularly during mentorship sessions in which she and Bashar engage in intellectual exchanges and dialogues in both languages.

Bashar and Tasha discovered edSeed and VIP.fund through friends who guided them to the platforms. Both have lauded the easy use of the platforms. To them, edSeed and VIP.fund are communities, families, and tools to enhance their skills and reach their full potential. The programmatic and technological support, from their viewpoint, is high, particularly as VIP.fund is a tech-focused endeavor; this facilitates work and makes it more efficient. Open and consistent communication is emphasized to optimize quality. Seeing as both platforms were set up from the beginning for audiences abroad, communication was not impacted throughout the pandemic.

Once a student reaches their edSeed campaign goals, the money is transferred to the university or to partner nonprofits who engage in monitoring the disbursement of the fund. According to Bashar, the funds cover tuition, books, transportation, and other student-specific needs such as WiFi access or room and board. Transparency is guaranteed in many ways, including the upload of documented proof by the students.

Elaborating on the Peer-to-Peer Mentor Program, Tasha described it as “wonderful for connecting with people.” Being in New Jersey, she enjoys the program as it allows her to connect to other Arabs and to improve her Arabic language. Both Bashar and Tasha describe it as a fun and rewarding experience. To quote Bashar: “it brings people from different backgrounds and cultures together to learn from each other.” This is one of the many reasons that make edSeed and VIP.fund unique and sustainable. Focusing on online and virtual exchanges additionally renders them more sustainable. It is difficult for Bashar and Tasha to select a single favorite memory, as they have many. Bashar appreciates the help he was given with his campaign and Tasha’s mentorship. Tasha also treasures the friendship that they have built and their intercultural exchange. 

Delving into the mentorship program, mentors and mentees are paired together based on interests and backgrounds as this helps create lasting bonds. Mentors also receive continuous training on conversing with their mentees, goal setting, overcoming communication obstacles, and approaching trauma and sensitive topics. Furthermore, they are encouraged to reach out to staff about their concerns or challenges.

Based on availability and choice, mentors may have more than one mentee. In addition to logging volunteer hours, mentors provide a summary and reflection of the topics that were discussed with their mentees each week, mentioning any challenges that were encountered along the way. This allows for continued personal growth and helps further develop the mentorship program. In general, mentors try to be creative in helping their mentees, sometimes reorienting them towards campus resources or webinars and at other times assisting them with research or finding someone who can assist them.

In Bashar’s eyes, a good mentor-mentee relationship is anchored in open communication and open-mindedness. Tasha adds that aligned interests make it easier to connect and relate to each other. Building an environment which fosters cultural and linguistic growth is important to both. Each session is unique and revolves around the needs, wants, and goals of the mentee. Bashar and Tasha feel that they have both grown in their linguistic abilities and conversational skills throughout their continued mentorship experience. 

In Jordan, the mentorship program started after the lockdown due to inaccessibility to in-person communication. As long as the code of conduct and rules of engagement are respected and VIP.fund values are maintained, there are no restrictions to the mentor-mentee relationship. Tasha believes that Bashar and she have built a beautiful friendship and that Bashar would make a great mentor in the future, should he choose to be one. Indeed, the various roles at edSeed and VIP.fund are not set in stone; individuals can volunteer in different ways and departments, can be mentors, mentees, and so on. The mentorship program runs between four to six months at a time. The weekly or daily time commitment depends on the mentor and mentee relationship, availability, and needs.

On tips for immigrant and refugee students, Bashar advises individuals to keep an open mind, practice English, and focus on enhancing transferable skills as well as pursuing their goals. Tasha also encourages them to be open to advice and mentorship. She strongly advocates for taking chances and asking questions.

Regarding tips to universities and university officials, they both expressed the need for more university scholarships for international and refugee students, more affordable tuition fees, and more inclusion in general. Tasha firmly believes that international students bring tremendous linguistic, cultural, religious, and historical richness.

Meet SVR Volunteer, Christelle Barakat

Christelle Barakat, SVR Working Group 1 Volunteer, Graduate Peace and Conflict Studies Student, Center for New North Carolinians Volunteer and Fellow, University of North Carolina - Greensboro​

Christelle Barakat is a Lebanese Fulbright graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro pursuing a M.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies with a concentration on International Peace Development. She has been volunteering with the Center for New North Carolinians (CNNC) since she arrived in the U.S. in August 2020 and has been a CNNC fellow since Fall 2020. The CNNC engages in training and research, in addition to the provision of direct services to immigrant and refugee populations in Greensboro and North Carolina.