Penn Grad Center’s Buddy Program Aims to Span International Cultural Gaps

By Julie McWilliams

When Fernando Gama of Argentina and Tanya Jain and Manas Shukla, both of India, began graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, they wanted to make new friends with all kinds of backgrounds. So did grad students from other schools, including Ling Gu and Xinwei Liu, both of China, Vera Partem, a Ukranian-American from Philadelphia, and many others.

What they all found was an experience that offered more than acquaintances: friends who were genuinely interested in learning about their cultures and traditions. What they found was Intercultural Buddies.

Some 30 percent of graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania come to Philadelphia from across the globe, so facilitating a level of comfort for so many people from vastly different cultures is not an easy task. The staff at Penn’s Graduate Student Center, however, believes it is important -- for the students themselves.

“It’s a real shame for graduate students to come here and not interact with each other socially,” says Anita Mastroieni, Grad Center director. “The schools provide a lot of professional development opportunities, but we help them talk with their fellow students about things other than petri dishes or law.”

Shaina Adams-El Guabli, the center’s associate director, oversees Intercultural Buddies as part of her responsibilities, and Gu, a second-year student in the Graduate School of Education who joined the group last year, is the Intercultural Buddies program fellow.

“We saw a need and filled it,” Adams-El Guabli says. “Surveys and anecdotal evidence tell us most international and domestic grad students do not have a meaningful relationship.”

That’s what encouraged the Grad Center staff to create Intercultural Buddies two years ago. Penn grad students join with their colleagues from other schools in groups of four to six to make friends, learn about each other’s cultures and enjoy social activities as a group.

“We gather the whole group once a semester, and then provide coffee cards the smaller groups can use to meet up once a month,” Adams-El Guabli says.

The program also encourages the small groups to plan their own social activities and reaches out to students through orientation sessions, listservs, flyers, a Facebook page, graduate coordinators and a monthly newsletter that Gu coordinates. The efforts pay off.

Gama, a first-year doctoral student in the Electrical and Systems Engineering Department at SEAS, saw Intercultural Buddies on listservs and heard about the program at Grad Center orientation sessions.

Seeing that it aligned with his fondness for cultural diversity, he says, “I like hearing stories about experiences that are different from mine. I like to learn about how things are done in other countries, about traditions and daily life in other places.

“I like to know what things we might have in common even though we might come from places far apart. I also like the exchange of ideas, since the perspective of people with other backgrounds is different. All in all, I think that intercultural experiences are very enriching,” he says.

“The activities I enjoyed the most were those times where we could actually chat with our groups with no guidance whatsoever,” he says, “when we got together for a cup of coffee -- the Starbucks gift card was a good idea -- or when we went out for dinner.”

Jain, who is a master’s student in biotechnology in SEAS, said she learned about the program through the Grad Center listserv during her second month at Penn.

“[Our group] met for coffee at a Starbucks once and for an end-of-semester dinner in December,” she says. “Some of us also met up at events organized by Ling and the Grad Center in general. It has been a great experience learning about everyone's countries and backgrounds. I would love to join this program again.”

Liu, a master’s student in the School of Social Policy & Practice,  says a flyer advertising a free lunch piqued her interest in Intercultural Buddies. What she’s found there has been a rich experience.

“So I went to the free lunch,” she says. “But I met other students from China, also Turkey and Ukraine. We go to Starbucks for coffee, and we’re organizing a movie night.”

Partem is a second-year master’s student at Penn’s Fels Institute of Government in the School of Arts and Sciences who has been involved with Intercultural Buddies for two years.

“I have really enjoyed the engagement with the diverse group of student participants,” she says. “As a group, we bonded well over coffee outings, movie nights, potlucks and University events. It’s a wonderful way to make a connection with students from different disciplines and to explore campus events together. Each one of us has been a motivator for the others to get more engaged in the campus community.”

Shukla, a first-year master’s student in mechanical engineering, says he participated in other cultural leadership programs previously and joined Intercultural Buddies for reasons similar to the others.

It’s the activities, though, that he enjoys most. Shukla and his Buddies meet for lunch or dinner occasionally and attended a Sixers game together. He laughs when describing his first experience at an American basketball game.

“I was lost. I don’t follow basketball or know what is happening in the game or which team is which. I ended up cheering for the team I was not supposed to cheer for, but it was a lot of fun.”

Shukla enjoys his group, which includes students from China and Germany, but says he’s also “met others beyond my buddies and become very good friends.”

Shukla’s experience is exactly what the program aims for.

“Our hope is that Intercultural Buddies will help students overcome isolation and build relationships beyond the program,” says Adams-El Guabli.

Gu was instrumental in setting up the small groups and explained that about 72 students participate in Intercultural Buddies, divided into 12 groups.

“As the coordinator, I spent a lot of time doing the groupings. I wanted to make sure each group was diverse culturally and across Penn’s 12 schools,” she says.

And they are. Members come from other countries we well: Brazil, Turkey, Spain, the Philippines, France and Korea plus the United States.

“Personally, it’s a really good opportunity to meet people from other schools,” Gu says.

“It’s been a pretty good mix, international and domestic,” Adams-El Guabli says. “About two-thirds to one-third, not quite 50-50, which would be ideal.”

Intercultural Buddies is just one of the 200-300 programs Grad Center runs annually, offering support, resources and activities designed specifically for graduate students, Mastroieni says, adding that some 6,000-7,000 students register for the Center’s events each year.

“Some are broad, such as Intercultural Buddies, new student orientation, dissertation support, personal development and a grant conference,” Mastroieni says. “And there’s variety: hiking the Wissahickon Trail, gardening workshops, making cocktails with herbs.”

Mastroieni says her office hires 10-12 grad students each year to facilitate the programming: “Grad students understand what other grad students want and need.

“We provide them with a safe place to hang out and decompress,” she says.

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