The CCAS International Buddy Program pairs international graduate students with mentors, helping new students get acquainted with D.C. and the university.
By Tatyana Hopkins
When Yujia Jing decided to move from China to Washington, D.C., to pursue a master’s in art history at the George Washington University, she looked forward to having “colorful experiences,” such as visiting the city’s many museums and learning about new cultures. But language and cultural barriers made the first-year graduate student’s transition and studies more difficult than she expected.
“The biggest challenge I have faced is language,” she said. “I cannot fully understand what teachers and classmates are talking about.”
She said the new Columbian College of Arts and Sciences International Buddy Program connected her with a mentor who she could relate to and who loved art as much as she does.
Piloted in fall 2017, the program connects incoming international graduate students with mentors, who are both international and domestic current graduate students in CCAS, to help them acclimate to life in the United States and at GW.
Ms. Jing’s mentor, Yoo Jin Choi, a second-year art history graduate student, moved to the United States from South Korea in high school and was a mentee in the program last year.
“I had two mentors and a great experience,” she said. “I decided to participate this year to return the positive memories I received while in the program.”
More than 160 students representing 35 countries signed up for the voluntary buddy program this year.
“Yoo Jin gave me many helpful suggestions on studying,” Ms. Jing said. “She provided a lot of advice on how to adapt to study and life in America.”
Jeffrey Brand, the CCAS associate dean of graduate studies, said he is delighted that students have embraced the program with enthusiasm. “Columbian College created the International Buddy Program because we realized that our international students have a lot to offer one another, both socially and professionally,” he said.
Rebecca Burns, a CCAS graduate student services coordinator, said in addition to connecting students with academic and health resources on campus, the program also hosts social events throughout the semester.
“Most people look at graduate students and think that they’re adults and don’t need any help, and that is just not true,” she said. “Many of the people in my office are from another country or have studied abroad, and we wanted to find a way to make it easier for international students to socialize because it is a vital part of education.”
For Halloween, the group met for food and games in District House and played Pin the Hat on George, a GW rendition of the party game Pin the Tail on the Donkey.
Ms. Burns said the International Buddy Program is designed not only to introduce international students to American culture but also to create a hub for inter-cultural exchange.
Students are intentionally matched with students from different countries and programs.
“The program’s intent is to encourage new international students to make new friends, promote diversity and inclusion and to send the message that international students are welcome at GW,” Ms. Burns said. “I hope these relationships go beyond even graduation and spill over into their careers and general interactions with people of other backgrounds.”
Priya Lewis, the International Buddy Program’s student ambassador, said the program gives students an avenue to relate to others when it can be easy to feel alone.
“You’re sitting right here in D.C., but you’re talking about things like what’s happening in Egypt and how it may be similar to what’s happening here or in India,” Ms. Lewis said. “When you are with other people who are in the same boat as you, it gives you hope and confidence that you can do this.”
Ms. Lewis, who is from India, is paired with Bangladeshi geography student Tanni Sarker.
Although they do not meet often in person because of schedule conflicts, Ms. Sarker said she was happy to have someone who could answer her questions before she got to know her classmates.
"At first it was hard to adjust, because I was the only Asian in my program," she said. “But with time, it became easier for me to make friends.”
Now, Ms. Sarker said, she feels more included—after celebrating her first Halloween, she will now celebrate “Friendsgiving” with classmates.
Ms. Lewis said after learning how to grocery shop, get around town and build new friendships “from ground zero,” international students start to feel at home.
“I consider myself a D.C. native at this point because D.C. has become my home,” Ms. Lewis said. “Even though I did not grow up here, this is where I did things for myself and explored who I am and made friends.”