Buddy program connects students

Brian Allen

Washburn has become an international destination for learning, and local students can benefit from the experience of these visiting students.

This year, 163 students came to Washburn from 34 countries scattered around the world. Favoring programs in business, nursing, music and English, Heidi Staerkel, coordinator of international student activities said 76 of this year’s students come from China and Hong Kong, 12 more from Paraguay, nine from Kenya and eight from Honduras. Fifteen countries are represented by only one student, leaving lots of opportunity for international students to feel alone.

Staerkel, a self-described international mom, helps the international students get through the red tape and onto campus, then assists them with legal and practical orientations, cultural and social adjustments and any questions they may have.

Visiting students are also supported by the Topeka Friendship Network. It helps to match up interested students with American friendship families.

“They get together at least once a month for maybe dinner, or go to a soccer game or just give them the opportunity to participate in American culture,” said Staerkel. “And [they] practice English.”

Yet family and university support is not the only thing international students need, something senior business major Travis Byers learned during his studies in Rosenberg, Germany. Being a stranger in a strange land speaking a strange language, he discovered his university’s buddy system, which matched visiting students with locals, to be invaluable on a practical level. It was both culturally enriching and a great way to foster lifelong friendships.

Byers discussed his international experience with other students and it became clear that having a buddy made a huge difference. Simple things like getting from the airport to the school, selecting classes and instructors, where to eat, where to shop, what to wear, places to go and places to avoid can be quite daunting for a first time visitor to a school, town or country. Add language and cultural barriers and suddenly the concept of having a local buddy makes a lot of sense.

It was out of that need for peer contact that Byers helped launch the WU Buddy Program,

“There was a group of Chinese girls who walked three and a half miles just to shop at Wal-Mart,” said Byers.

He also described how a Japanese student, a visitor from a stoic culture, unnecessarily postponed seeking medical care for an injury. Both of these instances could have been avoided if these students had a friend they could have sought advice or confided in.

Byers, Staerkel and Angie Swim launched the WU Buddy Program “to advise, encourage and assist incoming international students to achieve the fullest potential of the study abroad experience at Washburn University and the Community.”

Buddies are expected to meet three hours or more a month, maintain open communication, become a friend, be an ambassador of the United States and lend a helping hand. Buddies should understand that there are different cultural beliefs, attitudes, and norms between our international students.

The humanitarian, educational and culturally enriching experience of being a WU Buddy is obvious, but there are practical benefits as well. The program offers Washburn students an opportunity to create friendships on an international level, something that is increasingly important in the global market.

Interested students can visit the International House for more information. To get started sharing culture with the international community, students can attend the WU Celebration of Cultures, Nov. 21 in White Concert Hall from 7 to 9 p.m. to share music, dance and fashion.