By Rachel Helgeson, Reporting Intern
This year’s expansion of a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire program pairing international and American students appears to have benefitted all of its participants.
Participation in the UW-EC Buddy Program increased more than four-fold this year after it was opened to all students currently on campus and all incoming international students.
The program was originally intended solely to improve the conversational skills of international students enrolled in English-as-a-second-language courses. A fluent or native English-speaking student would be partnered with an international student to help improve those skills.
This year, the program has evolved to include cultural exchanges and to foster personal relationships that extend outside the classroom. Those relationships help international students navigate the campus and reduce cultural shock.
“We have a total of 130 students participating in the Fall 2017 buddy program, including both international and domestic students,” said Rachel Steuer, the program director.
“It is voluntary for both. We had almost 90% of our new international students sign up,” she added.
In past years, the program consisted of approximately 30 to 35 students.
Steuer noted that every continent except Antarctica is now represented in the program.
The Eau Claire students’ main responsibilities still include helping international students improve their English. Pairing international students with domestic students also increases valuable exposure to the distinct culture in Eau Claire and in the Midwest.
Zikai Jin, a student from China, said that the program “is very helpful” and he enjoys “communication with American friends and learning about American culture.” Another international student, Yu Ruiyang, agreed and said, “it is fun because [his] buddy talks a lot about American culture.”
Some Program Details
Buddies are encouraged to spend a total of 10 to 15 hours together during the semester. They are free to choose how they spend their time together. This may include talking over coffee, walking downtown, cooking family recipes, participating in seasonal traditions like pumpkin carving or enjoying shared hobbies.
The program also organizes various activities to which all participants are invited, such as the initial meet-and-greet at the beginning of the year and an opportunity to climb the rock wall in the McPhee Fitness Center on UW-EC’s campus.
This year, however, the program has added off-campus activities such as visits to Ferguson’s Apple Orchard located on Balsam Road in the countryside south of town. The program organized multiple dates to visit the orchard throughout October.
The program director commended the students for becoming so dedicated to this extraordinary program.
“It is truly a brave and awesome thing to step outside one’s comfort zone to embrace this new experience,” Steuer said.
Why Students Sign Up
Domestic and current international students volunteer for the program for different reasons. Many students who have studied abroad sign up to participate in more cultural exchange here at home. This year, nearly 60 of the 130 students are returnees.
Some students choose to sign up just to understand an international student’s perspective. Kailah Kloes, a sophomore who will be studying in South Korea next spring, is one of them.
Kloes said that in Korea, she “will feel the same way” as the international student she is paired with, and added that the program “would be a good way to connect with the international students here.”
Other students sign up to fulfill their service learning requirement. UW-EC requires students to complete 30 hours of approved community service before graduation.
In this case, students are required to log their hours with their buddy and record their experience at the end of the semester. The program director and a mentor outside the program, such as a faculty member on campus, oversee the students’ service learning project.
Service Learning Questions
Some may argue that completing service learning through the Buddy Program could interfere with the nature of the relationships between the international and domestic students.
However, Steuer believes that the service learning component promotes accountability between students.
“There is likely more of a responsibility that a student may feel, [and] the majority of students who signed up truly have an international interest, as well as want to connect with cultures outside their own,” Steuer said.
She added that there are a few domestic students who have even reached out to her personally to ask how they can become better buddies and leaders for their international peers.
A Look Ahead
The program, which is housed in the university’s Center for International Education, will continue to morph and evolve based on the needs and desires of the involved students, according to Steuer. She hopes the program will remain dynamic and has plans for change in the making.
“We are already talking about partnering events between the buddies and their international friends [with] the host families that international students have. . . in the community,” she said.
Steuer also envisions having former buddies come to speak about how to “navigate the new relationships.” She said she hopes this will encourage the next cohort of domestic students to get fully involved with the program as it evolves.
Note: Rachel Helgeson is currently participating in the UW-Eau Claire “Buddy Program.” She took the photos that accompany this article, except for the home page photo which was provided by UW-Eau Claire.