UPEI international buddy program booming
'I've loved learning different cultures from them too, so it's a two-way street'
A program that pairs up new international students with those returning to UPEI has doubled its numbers, as more students, from more countries, enrol at the Island university.
The international buddy program has gone from 150 to 300 members this fall.
Jose Gonzalez, a fourth-year student from Costa Rica, is the co-ordinator of the international buddy program.
"When I came here I didn't expect that I would experience culture shock, but then when I got here I realized that it was much harder, especially because I started in the winter semester," Gonzalez said.
"I thought that joining the buddy program and other social systems on campus would help me make friends."
Growing international presence
This fall, UPEI has 1,377 international students from 93 different countries.
That's up 213 students over last year, an 18.3 per cent increase. International students now make up 28 per cent of the student population.
Gonzalez said as buddy co-ordinator he tries to match people with similar interests and similar areas of study.
The buddy can be a domestic student, or another international student familiar with UPEI.
"You get somebody who's like a moral support for you, somebody who's there for you," Gonzalez said.
"Somebody who you feel you can rely on and have a friendly face to ask for help if you need it."
Because of the dramatic jump in numbers, Gonzalez set up a squad of buddy leaders — returning students who help him organize events.
Gonzalez said the growing number of international students has been beneficial to everyone at UPEI.
"I feel it has made UPEI a more diverse campus, where people have much more to learn than just education," Gonzalez said.
"They can learn different ways of thinking, different ways of living, and I just feel like that, sometimes, is even more important than your studies because you're developing as a human being."
'Makes you more social'
Kate Menard, a UPEI student from Red Lake, Ont., is in her second year with the buddy program.
"Being a Canadian I know how things work here and I know that it can be hard for international students to transition to a completely different culture for many and even climate," Menard said.
"With the buddy program we do many different activities, some I might have not done on my own, so it definitely makes you more social."
Menard likes that she has met UPEI students from around the world.
"It helps us Canadians, like I've loved learning different cultures and everything from them too," Menard said.
"It's kind of like a two-way street. We both benefit."
Menard's buddy, Rachel Pereira, has now become a friend.
"Especially in winter, it's really hard in winter, so Kate's been helping me get accustomed to everything, especially the cold," said Pereira, who's from India.
During her first year in the buddy program, Pereira got to go apple picking and ice skating.
"We have a lot of social activities that help you mix around and just make new friends and lessen the pressures of university work," Pereira said.
"It's definitely made me more social and comfortable with how I interact with people and you just broaden your understanding of different cultures."
Seeing the international buddy program grow to 300 members this year has been exciting for international student adviser Richelle Greathouse.
She said the program initially started as a way to help international students build their language skills, but organizers soon realized the students need social support as well.
"I don't think people realize how different it is for international students," Greathouse said.
"You're not just adjusting to the culture, you're probably homesick. Even the difference in food can make you feel like, 'oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into.'"
Greathouse said one of the highlights of the international buddy program is the annual ski trip in January.
"Winter is a bit scary, but you also have to think somebody who's coming from a country who has never seen snow, winter is also a little bit exciting," Greathouse said.
Greathouse said they decided to start the buddy program over the summer months this year, for the first time.
"Some of the students that came in the summer had an opportunity to get adjusted and they've actually, even in a short period of time, become leaders on campus themselves," Greathouse said.
"I think it creates a bit of a family atmosphere."