By Sam Phillips
Moving to a new country to study abroad can be intimidating, but a new student organization is helping international students adjust to American culture while studying at Youngstown State University.
The organization is called iPals and was created by Samantha Anderson, a student trustee. Domestic students volunteer to serve as mentors to international students and must spend at least 20 hours a semester helping them study, touring the area, spending time with them and making them feel welcomed in their new environment.
The iPal mentors must visit with their partner at least twice a month for an hour. Mentors are also required to take their iPal partner to at least four events, such as concerts in downtown Youngstown or football games. The events can be on or off campus.
“It’s a brand new program,” Anderson said. “I saw international students were not truly integrating with the [domestic] students, and I wanted to bridge that gap. They are coming out of their comfort zone to study at YSU. If they don’t feel like they are a part of our community, if they don’t feel like a penguin, then we are not doing our job.”
She formulated the basic plans for the program over the summer. She was inspired by a friend from South Korea who told her about a “buddy program” at her university where native Korean students were partnered with international students. After another student mentioned it at an SGA meeting, she decided to implement the program this fall.
She wrote a proposal to Ann Gardner, the assistant director of the Center for International Studies and Programs, and began working on recruiting volunteers and making the program a reality.
“We want the international students to have a chance to adjust and assimilate here,” Gardner said. “We have a large population of students who want to engage with people from other cultures, so this enriches everybody’s experience.”
There is no formal training, but Hanna Martin, an exercise science major, described the lengthy application process.
“You have to fill out an extensive survey and talk about why you would be good, and they chose people based off that,” Martin said. “I actually have three adopted sisters from Ukraine, so I’m rather good at understanding different accents and what people are trying to convey if they don’t know the right words, so both Sam and I thought I would be a good fit for the program.”
Martin said she really connected with her iPal partner, a freshman from Hungary, because they were both on the women’s swim team.
“America is a rather large country, but there are so many different cultures, so many different standards out there,” Martin said. “Learning about a different culture gives you a different perspective on a lot of things that you never thought about, and it is always fun to make new friends. You never know, it’s a small world. You could end up visiting them one day.”
Jarrod Ellenberger, a mechanical engineering major, also enjoys his involvement with the iPal program. He has classes with his iPal partner, so they study together and plan on playing soccer in the future. He said it’s a great learning experience.
“My eyes have opened to the way they view our culture. I didn’t think about that perspective until I started getting more involved with them,” Ellenberger said. “I think it’s a really good program that gets the domestic students and the international students involved.”
Initially, there were close to 30 volunteers. Now, there are almost 100 people who would like to volunteer, but there can only be 70 pairs. This is because Anderson is in charge of matching and introducing the pairs herself, and that the pairings must be the same gender.
The 30 female students who were not paired up will not be able to volunteer this year because the rest of the iPal partners are male, but Anderson is hoping to utilize them by inviting them to volunteering events.
One volunteer opportunity this summer was welcoming the new students at the airport.
“Right when the student gets off the plane, there were students from our university waiting for them and holding a sign saying welcome. They see they are welcomed with open arms, and then they have someone to talk to on the ride back to university,” Anderson said. “We had several e-mails from the international students saying they were so happy to have that connection with other students.”
Students who need volunteer hours can benefit from this program and accumulate as many hours as they need.
“It’s really nice because for the Honors College you have to get 60 volunteer hours, and it’s basically hanging out with friends. It’s still volunteering because we are teaching them about American culture, and that’s volunteering in a way,” Ellenberger said. “At the same time, we are just experiencing our own culture even more.”
One thing Anderson said she has observed in this project is that the domestic students learn just as much as the international ones do. Students are interested in learning the languages of their iPal partners as well as learning about their customs.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone,” Anderson said. “They get to learn about different aspects of the world, different cultures and everyone feels included.”