Community Connections volunteers enjoy cross-cultural exchange, friendship
The Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) seeks volunteers for Community Connections, a program to help international students, scholars, and in many cases, their families connect with members of Yale, New Haven, and other local communities.
The program helps members of Yale’s international community learn more about U.S. culture, improve their language skills, and make new friends. There are four different ways to participate in Community Connection programs including First Year Friends, Conversation Partners, English Conversation Facilitators, and Thanksgiving Hosts.
To provide more information on the programs, OISS will host a Community Connections Info Session on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at 5 p.m. at the OISS offices at 421 Temple St.
“While each program has a slightly different focus, all of them exist with the express purpose of encouraging cross-cultural exchange and friendship,” said Ann Kuhlman. “Students, scholars, and hosts participating in these programs almost always come away with new friends, increased appreciation of other cultures, and broader and deeper awareness of the world we all share.”
Each fall OISS recruits volunteers to host two or more international students/scholars for Thanksgiving dinner. Thanksgiving is an exclusively American holiday, so celebrating the day with an American family is a unique experience for many international students and scholars.
“We always have more international guests than hosts, so it's an area where we work especially hard to find hosts; it’s a fantastic way to give back to the community,” said Molly Hampton, OISS assistant director for program and communications, who manages all the Community Connections programs. Hampton says that OISS can guarantee that anyone volunteering to be a host will be matched with a guest. OISS also recruits and hosts students for Spring Break.
“Many international Yale students don't travel home for breaks, so it's a great way to provide them with some company while they remain in New Haven,” said Hampton. “Even just getting away from campus for one home-cooked meal here and there can be a welcome respite from the quiet campus.”
Past participants agree. A student from China who participated in the Thanksgiving program said her hosts were so kind that it felt like old friends meeting again. Another student from Russia participating in the same program added that “I felt like I was at home: the first time in my four years in the U.S.”
First Year Friends
First Year Friends matches incoming first-year international Yale College students with local hosts who provide them with an introduction to the United States, New Haven, and Yale cultures. The program spans the entire academic year, with participating hosts and students typically meeting once a month to share a meal or enjoy activities such as hiking, day trips to popular Connecticut locations, local festivals, theater performances, or sporting events.
According to Hampton, First Year Friends is the most informal, and the most social of the programs.
“First Year Friends not only helps quickly assimilate international students into their new communities but is a fantastic kickstart to building new, enduring friendships,” said Hampton. “It fosters awareness, acceptance, and empathy.”
First Year Friends are usually matched at the beginning of the fall semester, so it is a good time for those interested in the program to register. However, Hampton says, registration is always encouraged regardless of the time of year because even if OISS can’t immediately match people, they hold onto applications until a match is made.
Ron Heiferman, a volunteer who has participated in both the First Year Friends & English Conversation Facilitator programs for several years, sees participants as ambassadors for Yale, New Haven, and the United States. Heiferman is a Yale alumnus and an associate fellow at Berkeley College at Yale, and serves on the board of directors at the Yale Club of New Haven.
“Hopefully, in supporting these programs we can help insure that our student friends leave with a positive impression of our university, city, and country,” said Heiferman. “And another benefit for me is that hosting these young people from abroad puts a pep back in my step!”
Suzanne Cooney, another long-time volunteer of First Year Friends and an English conversation facilitator, agrees with Heiferman, considering her time as a volunteer to be a truly unique, satisfying experience.
“Besides the great feeling of helping students transition from their homeland to Yale and New Haven, it has been so rewarding to establish so many friendships for life,” said Cooney. “What could be better than that?”
The Conversation Partners program pairs members of the international community with an English language conversation partner. Participants are asked to meet at least twice a month, but each pair has the freedom to decide what works best for them. In meeting, they engage in various activities that can range from simply connecting over coffee to collaborating in volunteer activities, making day trips to local tourism attractions, or attending sporting events. OISS asks participants for a minimum one-semester commitment, but if both parties agree, the engagement can continue as long as they wish. Partners are matched based on need and availability.
“We’ve seen countless, ongoing close friendships forged through the First Year Friends and Conversation Partners,” said Hampton. “I think their popularity stems from their informal, social nature. Both are wonderful programs for easily meeting new people and having fun together, with the silver lining being to enhance one’s language fluency along the way.”
English Conversation Facilitators
The English Conversation Facilitators program is instructional and leadership-oriented and is primarily focused on helping others improve language skills. Facilitators are responsible for planning and leading discussions of small groups of international students, scholars, and family members. The program takes place on weekdays 12:30-1:30 p.m. at the OISS office building at 421 Temple St.
“Being part of the conversation groups offered by OISS is a unique experience especially if you have just started to live in a foreign country,” said Kezban Cetin, an English conversation group participant. “You can learn about the social and cultural life of people living in the U.S. from the valuable group leaders while you strengthen your bounds with social life. Besides, building new friendships with people from all around the world is perhaps the best way to broaden your mind.”
According to Hampton, one does not need to be a trained educator to be a facilitator, OISS does require that those selected as facilitators maintain an ongoing weekly commitment to their group throughout an entire semester.
“We provide selected facilitators with resources and access to other group leaders to help them brainstorm discussion topics and activities that will help them more effectively lead sessions,” said Hampton. “It's another amazingly fast and productive way to get to know many members of the international community here at Yale, all while helping evolve their language skills.”
“It's only an hour a week, but I found being a volunteer extremely rewarding,” said Grace Yun, one of the English Conversation Facilitators. “It's a privilege both to welcome newly arriving visiting students and scholars to Yale, New Haven, and the U.S. as well as to enhance their English ability to assist them in the pursuit of their academic studies and research fellowships. I look forward to exploring yet another unique ‘slice’ of the ‘Global Village’ in my conversation group as we engage each week in dynamic eye-opening intercultural dialogues this semester.”
This Community Connections program will be in full swing soon, and OISS is looking for volunteers for all four programs, particularly hosts for the Thanksgiving holiday. Hampton encourages anyone interested to sign-up right away by filling out the early registration form, indicating this program as one of their interests. Once registration officially opens, Hampton will be in touch with a more detailed registration form.
Hampton added that OISS is looking for volunteers who are friendly, curious, and empathetic to the needs of newly arrived international students, scholars, and families, and who are interested in the prospect of cross-cultural exchange right here in the heart of New Haven.
“While these Community Connection opportunities have always been important, we are in a particularly critical moment in our country’s history where more than ever our international community needs warm, welcoming, and encouraging individuals in their corner,” Hampton said. “While inviting someone out for coffee or into your home for dinner might seem like a small, insignificant gesture to most, it can turn into the defining moment of an international student’s stay in the United States and make them feel welcome and truly at home here.”