Pitt Pal: Facilitating Friendships with International Students

April 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

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A student worker shares about International Programs and Services at PSU’s annual Community Activities Fair.

Tucked in the southeast corner of Kansas, in the heart of the United States, is Pittsburg State University. Though it’s far from any international borders, this school with an enrollment of  less than 7,300 has become the educational destination for students from around the globe, with 469 internationals attending from 37 countries in the spring of 2012.

In light of statistics that say more than one third of international students have no close American friends, it is easy for students to arrive in the US feeling out of place and to leave feeling the same way. How does a school like Pitt State leverage Midwest hospitality to make its international population feel at home?

One answer is the Pitt Pal program, which facilitates friendships by pairing international students with American students. I asked the coordinator of Pitt Pal, Brenda Hawkins, to share about the program:

Pitt State had its International Friends program, matching up international students with local families, for many years before starting Pitt Pal. What are some of the added benefits of involving American students, rather than just relying on families?

My first day of work here we went to a regional international education conference and I heard K State talk about their buddy program. Realizing that we didn’t have anything like that I did some research on that type of a mentor program and we decided PSU needed one. At first I thought it would be a great opportunity for a domestic student to serve an international student and help them acclimate to the USA and college life here. We also wanted to encourage domestic students to have a global eye and outreach and knew that this would change their lives as well. Having been overseas myself on many trips, I knew that the hospitality of people we met always impressed me and helped us feel welcome.

The local family opportunity is encouraged to meet at least once a month. I felt like international students could also benefit from more frequent interaction with an American-born student. Since they would have in common being students this would provide an initial platform to build a friendship on. Being on campus and perhaps in the same dorm or classes would lend itself to potentially daily contact.

A recent survey found that 38% of international students have “no strong American friendships.” What do you see as the biggest obstacles to friendships between US and international students, and how does Pitt Pal help to overcome them?

In a nutshell, obstacles to friendships between US and international students are language barriers, cultural differences and misconceptions, stereotypes, and indifference to get out of your comfort zone and learn about another culture. Students don’t always see the value in learning about another culture and the effort that takes.

But I think another obstacle is a structural challenge that most universities face because international students arrive on campus up to a week before domestic students return. The first students they have a chance to meet and befriend are other international students. By the time most of the domestic students return to campus, friendships are formed and they tend to sit with other international students in class. To an American student it may appear that internationals prefer to hang together. Another structural challenge in some universities is that international students are separated from domestic students in their freshman experience classes. While this is necessary because some topics are unique to each group, it might put them on unequal footing for making friends.

Pitt Pal helps overcome these obstacles because it becomes a tool to facilitate cultural interaction and challenges each party to a level of commitment. It helps break the ice for students who may not reach out to form friendships with those who do not have as much in common with them. Finding common ground is key to the beginning of a newly forged relationship between an international and domestic student.  In getting acquainted, students relate to each other by finding similar interests like shopping, sports, food, and exchanging stories about their lives.  But having a desire and flexibility to try and learn new things takes the friendship to another level.

Pitt Pal helps students get to know the individual regardless of their culture and not hide behind generalities. They learn to appreciate the differences and similarities of their cultures and personalities.

Also, for the domestic student it appeals to their sense of helping a student in need.  This generation is strong in their desire to volunteer. I believe finding common ground and having a commitment to this responsibility helps overcome stereotypes and misconceptions. When domestic students return from their study-abroad opportunities, they understand the challenges international students face and are quick to volunteer to help them acclimate.

That’s an interesting thought on international students arriving to campus early. I would think that having students get in touch with each other before the international students get to the States helps with that. Of course, in the end, the relationships that develop are dependent on how much the students invest in them. Can you leave us with a couple examples that show the potential of Pitt Pal friendships?

I have several great examples of Pitt Pal relationships. Some American students have even been able to visit their international friends when they were on study abroad in Korea and Finland, etc. But I think I’ll let two students from China tell about their experiences in their own words, from essays they wrote about Pitt Pal:

This was my first time to meet my Pitt Pal. She was in a green shirt with golden hair and sunshine smile. We introduced ourselves to each other and she said she was American and good at volleyball while I like Ping-Pong, but this didn’t affect us talking about our favorite clothes and bags. We also determined that next week I would cook Chinese dishes for her and she would teach me how to bake.

and

I am proud that I built a good relationship with my Pitt Pal over the semester. I am so thankful for her keeping company with me during the fall break, when everyone flew to other places to have an enjoyable holiday except me. Even though the dorm on that day was very cold, I felt warm with my Pitt Pal and not lonely any more.

[photo: “DSC_0018,” by Michael Fienen, used under a Creative Commons license]

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