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Pair-Up Program Bridges Cultural Gaps

New ISSO Initiative Fosters Friendships between International, Domestic Students

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Josh Carter, left, and He Sun work together on an icebreaker activity during the Pair-Up Program's first-ever meet-and-greet event at University Crossing.

By Ed Brennen

Manning School of Business junior Josh Carter kept scanning students’ faces as they entered Moloney Ballroom, hoping to recognize the one he was looking for.

Carter had chatted with He Sun, an incoming graduate student from China, on Facebook over the summer, but today they were finally meeting in person through the Pair-Up Program, a new initiative organized by the International Student and Scholars Office that partners domestic and international students to encourage cross-cultural understanding and friendship.

“I’ve always been interested in Chinese culture,” Carter said as he tried to pick out Sun from the crowd of 130 students participating in the program. “It will be cool to get his own personal insight on the United States — and to ask him about his culture.” 

Moments later Sun approached Carter and asked, “Are you Josh?” Wide smiles swept over both students’ faces as they greeted each other with a warm handshake and quick hug. They grabbed two seats and jumped right into conversation, quickly discovering a shared love of playing music, riding bikes and programming computers.

“I’ve always wanted to learn Chinese,” Carter told Sun.

“I can teach you!” Sun exclaimed over the growing din of the ballroom, where similar excited exchanges were taking place left and right.

For the Pair-Up Program’s organizers, coordinator of international programs Allyson Lynch and graduate student Fang Zhang, it was everything they could have hoped for — and more — for the first meet-and-greet event.

“Seeing everyone meet for the first time … it’s euphoric,” Lynch said as the boisterous students took part in a series of icebreaker activities all around her. “We couldn’t be happier with the turnout.”

Idea becomes reality

The Pair-Up Program took root during last spring’s DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge, where it won a second-place prize of $2,500 in the Significant Social Impact category. Known then as “Buddies Without Borders,” the program was the brainchild of graduate students Zhang, Tugba Arsava and Burhan Colak and undergraduates Katherine Cox and Madeline Ormaza. As the university’s international student population continues to grow, the program supports efforts to encourage global engagement and an inclusive campus culture.

“We are very excited because only five months ago, in this same place, my team and I pitched this plan in the 2015 DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge. We pulled it together from zero to now, and we didn’t expect this when we sent out the application,” said Zhang, who noted that the program received 150 responses (spanning 14 countries and 12 majors) within the first two weeks — resulting in a waitlist for participants.

“It is very important because many of our international students travel thousands of miles all the way here, and they have no friends, no family, no nothing,” added Zhang, a native of China who earned his master’s degree in chemistry from the College of Sciences and is now pursuing his Ph.D. in biochemistry. “But if we come here and meet with someone that we know, we will feel much more comfortable and much more welcome, not only to this city but also to this culture.”

Participants were surveyed on their interests and hobbies, as well as their majors, and then paired accordingly. Since twice as many international male students (30) applied than domestic male students (15), they were grouped in a 2-to-1 ratio. There are also 32 domestic female students paired 1-to-1 with 32 international female students and 14 exchange students paired 2-to-1 with seven former study abroad students.

“This is absolutely very nice for us,” said Alexander Bachmann, an exchange student from Germany studying sound recording technology who was paired with Michael Furnari, a senior criminal justice major. “We chatted on Facebook before even arriving, so I knew I had a person who I can go to. He made shopping trips with me, which was very nice because, well, I don’t have a car here and we needed some things for our dorms. He helped me out and we watched some sports together.”

Passport, please

Participants are asked to attend at least one university-sponsored event (such as a hockey game or club activity) together each month, as well as at least one “outside” event (such as seeing a movie at the Luna Theater or going for a hike). The ISSO also sponsors events such as a Red Sox game and pumpkin carving contest.

Students are each given a “Pair-Up Passport” to chronicle their activities, and at a mandatory meeting each month they receive visa stamp stickers for each activity. The top three pairings (or trios) with the most visa stamps at the end of the semester receive a prize.

“Other campuses have similar programs, but we want to have one that really works the best,” said Lynch, who thinks the program could continue in the spring semester on a slightly smaller scale.

Zhang hopes to see the Pair-Up Program continue for many years to come.

“Sometimes people don’t feel like they are welcome because sometimes people here tend to mind their own business,” Zhang said. “An international student doesn’t understand why things are going this way, so they need someone to help them understand. At the same time, we need someone to help the domestic student understand how the international students think. So both sides can benefit a lot from this program, and both sides can utilize the energy.”