By Tierra Simpson, The Daily Iowan
University of Iowa freshman Yaqiong Wang came from China to Iowa City with competing feelings of nervousness and excitement. Now thousands of miles from home, she signed up for new UI program in hopes of finding her place on campus.
“I was a bit nervous,” she said. “We have many things different, different culture. If I signed up for this program I can make friends with American[s], which will help me to understand their culture and also practice my English.”
The UI’s first Friends and Neighbors Day program paired more than 200 international and U.S. students over the summer as pen pals. The partners were introduced to each other at an event Sunday.
Nearly 200 people from all over the world piled into the Currier Hall multipurpose room on Sunday. Wang and her pen pal, UI freshman Hannah Altmaier, said they automatically clicked.
“She is a great match for me, so I was really excited,” Altmaier said. “We’ve been talking about what we are doing here and shopping.”
Andrew Freeman, an assessment and evaluation specialist for the UI Center for Diversity and Enrichment, organized the new program after his research revealed a gap between international and UI students.
“I’d been hearing from various sources that it has been hard for international students and U.S. students to get connected and to make friends with each other,” he said.
Freeman found the gap is partly because international students tend to be more academically focused and U.S. students are more social.
“I’m not surprised,” said UI freshman and program participant Kyle Stead. “Since international kids come from overseas to come to school, they take their academics seriously, as a No. 1 priority.”
In fall 2011, 10.6 percent of the UI’s 30,893 students came from foreign countries, according to the Registrar’s Office. Those students hailed from 100 different countries.
Freeman’s research also found that both international students and U.S. students wanted to get to know each other. However, students were having trouble accomplishing this on their own.
“What they needed was a process to make that happen,” he said. “That’s where I was thinking how to get that done and so I came up with the idea for the Friends and Neighbors Day program.”
The program is loosely based on another Center for Diversity and Enrichment program in which college students write to fourth-graders and later meet on campus.
“I thought it would be nice if international students and the U.S. students started writing to each other before they got to campus and then when they got here they could meet,” Freeman said. “So that would be a more formal way for them to be more comfortable and relaxed about knowing somebody before they got here.”
With help from Lee Seedorf, the assistant director of the International Student and Scholars Services, Freeman was able to put the program together in two weeks.
In order to get the program running Freeman put together an application for students. While all U.S students were accepted, not all international students could be because more international students applied.
Despite having to turn down international students, Freeman exceeded his goal of 100 international students and 100 U.S. students. In total Freeman matched 206 students — 103 from each side of the world — and had to stop taking participants for the program.
In total the program cost $450, including the room and supplies. The program was a pilot this year and was only available to freshman.
Freeman hopes to expand the program by opening it up to students of all class levels.
“One of the things I realized when I did the program this year is that a lot of students would like to know more about the university before they get here and maybe if I paired first year students with older students, then they could get some of their questions answered from older students who have already been here,” Freeman said.
For some students, the new program yielded educational benefits as well as social ones.
“It helped to come in here knowing someone in my grade really well, knowing a bit about another culture, and kind of getting the experience of another culture [without] getting on a plane having to go 18 hours,” Altmaier said.