There is a social phenomenon called the “mere-exposure effect.” The more someone experiences interpersonal interactions with another person, the more likely he or she is to act like said person.
Activity Buddies hopes to do just that through their new program.
Education students must complete 30 diversity hours before graduation. One of the ways they were able to gain these hours was to participate in the Conversation Partners program.
In this program, domestic students were asked to meet with international students for one to two hours a week and talk. This is done on a purely voluntary basis. However, the English as a Second Language (ESL) department did not think this was enough.
ESL Instructor Helen Konstantopoulos is one of the founders of Activity Buddies.
“We wanted to do something more structured (than Conversation Partners) and offer it as a service learning project, so we developed this new program, Activity Buddies. Hopefully friendships will build and students will be more prepared for their future careers,” Konstantopoulos said.
Similar to Conversation Partners, Activity Buddies participants will be required to spend some time with each other.
Rather than just meeting on campus to discuss likes and dislikes, a domestic and international student will be paired together to attend an event. This requires both students to be more active in getting to know each other.
“For the international students, it can be really hard to make friends to go to activities with, or to even understand the culture and tradition behind it,” Konstantopoulos said. “We thought this could be a different type of activity that could involve domestic students as well. This way they have the opportunity to teach about their culture while building their ICC (Intercultural Competency) skills by interacting and conversing with an international student.”
It is more than fair to say that on campus, there is a disconnect between international and domestic students.
“I think this stems from fear of the unknown,” Konstantopoulos said. “The international students are out of their element when they arrive here, so they tend to cluster with other students who have the same background because they don’t know what to expect and they are more comfortable speaking in their own language… As far as the domestic students are concerned… they are not sure how to approach international students or how to start a conversation.”
Many students attending Northwest are from the Midwest where they are less likely to encounter someone from another culture.
Not only will these conversations educate domestic and international students about a culture different than their own, it is one of the goals of the program to have the students also learn something about their own culture through the eyes of someone else.
Nathan Wilson, Ph.D, is also involved in the program. He initially began working with Bayo Joachim, Ph.D., and Joy Daggs, Ph.D., by combining classes working on Conversation Partners.
“I thought it was a great opportunity for our intercultural students to get some actual intercultural experience,” Wilson said. “Looking at the program, we didn’t think it was enough; we thought we could do more. So, we looked at similar programs at other institutions… and we noticed several others had Activity Buddies and we thought that would be a better fit for our students.”
Wilson acknowledges it can be difficult to be culturally conscious all the time.
“I have read a lot of stuff about campuses trying to go into dorms and getting domestic and international students to live together to try and bring them into the general population more,” Wilson said. “Very few people signed up for it… I respect the fact that people need a space to be at home and feel comfortable. We don’t have to have the these difficult college encounters every single day and every hour of our lives. Everyone needs a little down time.”
The cultural barriers will not break down in one day. There will never be a quick fix solution. What is important is not to be apathetic.
Sophomore Kanon Ishibashi studies English in Japan and is here this semester as part of the ESL program. Ishibashi is also a new member of Activity Buddies and is looking forward to building a good relationship.
“We can participate in some events together with this university's students,” Ishibashi said. “We can make new friends, and learn how to behave at each event. If there wasn't a program like this, I'd go to all events with my friend from the same country.”
Freshman Briley Fisher is involved in the Activity Buddies through her Intercultural Communications class.
“With this program, you don’t just learn about some culture from a professor, but you actually get to interact and learn from someone who has been a part of that culture,” Fisher said.
The Activity Buddy Program is piloting this semester and the results are yet to be seen. One thing is for sure, though: steps are being made to bring understanding between two different populations, and those steps should be acknowledged and encouraged.