By Brittany Caplin for fyi
University of Iowa students Miranda Nielson and Xin Huang hang out at a downtown Iowa City shopping mall. Nelson and Huang became acquainted through a program called Friends of International Students; UI students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to participate in the program.
(Photo by Tom Schoon)
Traveling thousands of miles to go to a university in a different country can be the greatest experience of someone’s life, and also one of the most intimidating. A new language, new friends, and a new culture can overwhelm an 18-year-old.
Friends of International Students (FIS) provides these students with helpful, influential connections to people in the area. International students gain a new support system courtesy of their new friends, helping them with the transition to Iowa.
“It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved,” says Ken Royar, FIS president. “The students learn about American culture, and the friends learn about culture and diversity from a native of that country. It makes the world a smaller place.”
“With every match, a relationship is formed. Their country is no longer faceless because we have a friend that lives there.”
FIS, a nonprofit program affiliated with University of Iowa International Programs’ International Student & Scholar Services, is celebrating its 40th anniversary (an official celebration will follow the Sept. 19 FIS meeting in University Capitol Centre —details are pending). As FIS celebrates this milestone moment, it also deals with great demand. About 800 international students will be welcomed to the University this year; Royar hopes all students interested in making a friend through FIS will find a willing volunteer.
FIS encourages involvement from faculty, staff, students, and Iowa City residents. These various perspectives counter the perception international students might develop from popular culture.
“International students come with an understanding of American culture from newspapers, TV shows, movies, magazines, and other media sources,” Royar says. “Both positive and negative exaggerations come from these sources of information. FIS works diligently to match students and help give a realistic perspective of the American family, an understanding of American culture they take back to their home countries.”
Miranda Nielson, 19, has been involved in the program for two years. As a first-year student, Nielson chose FIS as her Pick One! activity after reading about the program in the Daily Iowan.
“It’s a really important program for the campus,” Nielson says. “I’m so glad I got involved, and I hope more people volunteer. It makes everyone more comfortable on campus and provides an opportunity to experience diversity.”
FIS matched Nielson up with two international students from China, Xin Huang and Shan Ye. Both students are the same age as Nielson so it was easy to find activities that they all enjoyed. The group met about once a month; Nielson often picked on-campus activities so that Xin and Shan could feel more involved with the University community.
Nielson’s assistance covers many bases: homework (especially English papers), social scenarios, meeting friends, and becoming acquainted with campus life. Nielson loves the positive impact she’s had on her students’ time at the University.
“I feel like I have helped make the transition easier for them,” Nielson says. “I always say hi to them; now they feel more comfortable doing that with their friends. I encourage them to share what they talk about with me and what advice I can give them with their other international friends.”
Royar is proud of the progress FIS has made over the past 40 years. But with such growth comes the challenge of having an adequate number of “friends” for the influx of international students. Last year, 113 students wanted to be matched up with a friend but there weren’t enough volunteers available.
“Members of the community have the opportunity to extend their welcome and make a difference in someone’s life,” Royar says. “With every match, a relationship is formed. Their country is no longer faceless because we have a friend that lives there.”