PEI

Easing the transition: UPEI buddy program aims to help international students

UPEI has been boosting recruitment efforts around the globe in recent years, taking aim at students from countries that were previously not on the university's radar.

There are about 1,000 international students enrolled at UPEI

Omer Ahmed Hasnoon moved to Calgary from Saudi Arabia in 2013, and started at UPEI in 2016. (Submitted by Omer Ahmed Hasnoon)

Omer Ahmed Hasnoon arrived in Calgary from Saudi Arabia in 2013, spent a few years taking English courses to prepare himself for university, and started studying business administration at UPEI in January of 2016.

He was paired up through the international student buddy program the university has been running since 2011.

Hasnoon said his "buddy" — Caroline Simoes Correa — helped answer questions eased his transition to university.

"After I applied for the buddy program I learned a lot of things," he said.

Caroline Simoes Correa (left) and Omer Ahmed Hasnoon met through the international student buddy program at UPEI. (Submitted by Omer Ahmed Hasnoon)

"Also if I wanted help I could have asked Caroline."

Hasnoon is the first child in his family to go to university so he wasn't able to talk to his brother for advice, an area where having a buddy really helped him.

"It's like having a big brother … or big sister. Like someone beside you that you can count on."

International recruitment

UPEI has been boosting recruitment efforts around the globe in recent years, taking aim at students from countries that were previously not on the university's radar.

Five years ago the university had about 400 international students, and now has 1,000, making up about 20 per cent of the student population. 

With the rising number of students coming from other parts of the world, comes the need for programs to help with the integration of new, international students. 

That is one of the forces driving the international student buddy program, started in 2011 to help bridge the cultural gap between students arriving in a new home from overseas, often knowing few people in the country.

'Very challenging'

Correa, now the coordinator of the buddy program year, is tasked with pairing volunteers with newcomers based on their interests and is also responsible for their integration into their new environment.

"Sometimes students are a bit shy, and my role is to connect them in the best way possible so that they have an enjoyable first year experience," she said in an email.

It's like having a big brother … or big sister. Like someone beside you that you can count on.- Omer Ahmed Hasnoon

Correa, entering her third year studying psychology, said that international students have a lot to think about coming to a new country, as well as entering a new stage in their lives.

"Going to university is a process to everybody," she said.

"But having to learn a new culture, and new ways of doing things on top of it all, can be very challenging."

'A learning experience'

Like Hasnoon, Correa reflected fondly on her time paired up through the program.

"It was a learning experience because you end up not only relating to an entirely new culture, but to an entirely new person," said Correa.

It helped me learn about Canadians and making friends with Canadians.- Omer Ahmed Hasnoon

Not only did she learn a lot through her experience with the buddy program, but she gained a friend in the process.

"The new student I took on to be a buddy is still one of my closest friends," she said. 

"Sometimes, the help goes both ways."

'Helped me learn'

Hasnoon said that when he first arrived at UPEI he wasn't comfortable meeting other students, something that going through the program helped him get through.

I would love to recommend the program to other people.- Omer Ahmed Hasnoon

"First time I was shy, I was in the buddy program and then I interacted more," he said.

"I think the fear of being a freshman … it disappeared."

Hasnoon also said that it was great to meet other international students through the program but that was only half of the benefit.

"It helped me learn about Canadians and making friends with Canadians," he said.

Giving back

Correa said that she has about 80 students pairing up for this year's edition of the program and she expects about 20 more students to volunteer once the semester begins. 

Hasnoon may be one of those volunteers because he wants to give back to a program that helped him become accustomed to a new place, at a new, and sometimes daunting stage of life.

"I might apply for volunteer and be a buddy program representative so I can help others," he said.

"I would love to recommend the program to other people."

With files from Laura Meader

now