Program offers platform for learning, inclusiveness, and friendship
Thursday, August 23, 2018

Victoria Minerva and Emily Campbell grew up thousands of miles apart, but an initiative in the University of Iowa’s International Programs designed to connect international and domestic students brought them together.

In fall 2017, Campbell, then a sophomore from Bondurant, Iowa, majoring in accounting and minoring in Chinese, and Minerva, then a first-year student from Tangerang, Indonesia, studying neuroscience, signed up to be part of International Programs’ Friends Without Borders program, which pairs international and domestic students and encourages them to spend time together and learn about each other’s cultures.

Campbell, who had twice traveled to China, says she wanted to connect with other international students. Minerva wanted to make more acquaintances on campus.

“I just thought I should make more friends and meet more people,” Minerva says.

The two were paired during a pizza party to kick off the fall 2017 semester. Campbell says they were complete strangers, but quickly formed a bond.

“Before you knew it, we turned from strangers to really good friends,” she says.

The Friends Without Borders program began four years ago. Before that, the UI had a Peer Assistant Program that paired one or two domestic students with a small group of international students to coordinate activities, such as attending an event at Hancher Auditorium or an Iowa City farmers’ market. The UI also had a program known as International@Iowa, in which domestic students mentored incoming international students, says Lee Seedorff, senior associate director for International Student and Scholar Services. However, the feeling was that International@Iowa was too one-sided, casting domestic students in the role of helpers and international students as those needing help.

“There’s nothing wrong with students helping each other,” Seedorff says. “But what we really wanted was for all of the students to be on equal footing, learn from each other, develop friendships, and have fun together.”

Taivna Mills, international services associate in International Programs and Friends Without Borders coordinator, says the program is intended to be fun and informal. Students are not required participate.

“We only provide activities and events for those who are interested,” Mills says.

Typically, first-year international students are paired with sophomore, junior, or senior domestic students. After an initial meeting, the students are encouraged to spend time together at least once a month. Events can range from a pizza-and-movie night to a sporting event or an event at Hancher.

Mills says the program has a Facebook page, and students participating in Friends Without Borders are encouraged to take pictures from their excursions and post them there. Points are awarded to the pairs for each time they do something together, and the duo that earns the most points at the end of the year is recognized, Mills says.

The number of participants in the program grew from 34 students in the 2016–17 school year to 64 during the 2017–18 school year, Mills says. Numbers for the fall 2018 semester are not yet available. Mills says most of the international participants come from China and Malaysia, but students from India, Japan, and Germany have participated as well.

The benefits of the program are vast, Mills says. International students gain a local friend who can teach them about local culture, such as American holidays and traditions.

“Everything is new to them, and they feel comfortable knowing someone here,” she says. “They feel more connected.”

Domestic students, in turn, learn about a culture they might not otherwise have been exposed to, promoting more diversity and inclusiveness on campus, Mills says.

Campbell agrees.

“Going into this, I really only had an idea of Chinese and American cultures,” she says. “Victoria was able to teach me about her culture and other cultures around the world.”

Minerva and Campbell say they went shopping together, went out to eat, did karaoke, went to a Chinese dumpling–making party, attended a show at Hancher, and carved pumpkins together. Minvera says Friends Without Borders is “a good starting point” for international and domestic friendships, but it’s up to those pairs to make the most out of it.

“It’s very self-driven,” she says.

Now, almost a year after they first met, the once strangers from different parts of the world remain friends.

“We actually hang out on a regular basis when I’m in Iowa City, so that’s super fun,” Campbell says.