Going Beyond Conversation Partners: Helping International Students Make American Friends

A former international student puts a twist on the typical conversation partner program that’s helping international students and American students become friends.

Eron Memaj, a former international student from Albania is a Residence Hall Director at Kent State University in Ohio and advisor of Kent State International Mentors. The following article was written for International Student Voice Magazine.

On June 14, 2012 an article called Friendless in America posted by Inside Higher Ed stated that 40 percent of international students said they have no close American friends. This is according to a new study.

Anyone who has taken the time to work with international students knows this is not new information.

Cindy Orsorio, an international student from Honduras studying at the College of Lake County shared this struggle with International Student Voice Magazine back in the October 2011 article, From Honduras to USA, Education Lighting the Way

“Americans think we’re from another country so they can’t understand our cultures and they don’t like us and they try to avoid us,” Cindy explained. “It’s a cultural thing. Everyone gets scared they won’t get the culture. I am closer to international students in the same classes. American students are not close and not friendly.”

U.S. American student trying on traditional Chinese clothing

As a former international student myself, I can understand how both international and American students are unsure how to form friendships. I also didn’t have the luxury of hanging out with other students from my own country, so I really had to “put myself out there” to befriend both international and American students. I lived in the residence halls, I became a resident assistant, ate all my meals in the dining halls, and I was involved in student organizations. I wanted to fully experience American college life. I put myself out of my comfort zone.

It wasn’t easy. But I put myself out there. And it was worth it.

So the bigger question is: What are universities doing to help bring international and American students together so they can develop close friendships and not make it seem so intimidating?

Thinking back on my experiences as an international student in the U.S. and now as an administrator at Kent State University in Ohio, I decided to create a peer mentorship program with three major components: conversation partners, community development, and student leadership.

The program is called Kent State International Mentors.

Students from Nepal and India during the KSIM event Celebrate Asia

In this program both the international student and the American student are mentors for each other. The pair meets at least once a week to learn about the other’s culture and language.

What sets this program apart from the typical conversation partner program, instead of just forming one friendship, it gives both the international and American student the opportunity to make more friends of different cultures.

In addition to these one-on-one meetings, the pairs attend group activities and meetings with other members in the program. Group activities include campus events, cultural dinners, country spotlight nights, social activities, etc. This way instead of being limited to interacting with one American, the international student gets to socialize with other American students as well. The same with the American student, he/she gets to socialize with more international students. Plus, instead of attending a campus event alone, such as the Homecoming parade or a football game, the international student now goes with his/her partner and a group of students. Students said these activities and bi-weekly meetings provide them the community where they feel welcomed and that they belong.

KSIM members attending a cultural event

In terms of student leadership opportunities, there is an executive board of both international and American student officers who organize the group activities and bi-weekly meetings for the members. Students take ownership and have the opportunity to be a community leader. The program is a registered student organization with governing bylaws.

What makes this program successful: This is different than the traditional “partner” or “buddy” program. Instead of building a friendship with just one American student, the international student has the opportunity to meet, socialize, and befriend several American students and become part of a community.

In the article Peer-ing Ahead published in NAFSA’s International Educator magazine in April 2012, this peer mentorship program was featured among other successful programs.

Turkish students teaching American students traditional dancing during Turkish Night

I invite you to visit www.ksimonline.org to read more about the program.

Final thought: This program has been going on since 2009. Improvements have been made along the way. It’s not the “silver bullet” or the “magic wand”, however, it’s a new and different approach that has proven to be beneficial to both international and American students. Just like with any other relationship, it’s definitely a two-way street. Both the international student and American student have to make the effort and be open to new cultures. Lastly, internationalization on campus doesn’t happen just from the international office. It needs to be a campus-wide effort with collaboration between students, faculty, staff, and administrators.

Do you have a program or idea to help build relationships between international and American students? Share with us!

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