Buddy Program Forges Lasting Connections
For international graduate student Ran Zhao ’17, all it took was a gentle nudge from a buddy. After arriving at UMass Amherst from China, “I wanted to do everything,” says Zhao. But she was unsure how to get involved. She found a mentor, Xiaohan “Kristy” Wen ’16, through the Buddy Program at the International Programs Office (IPO). She sought advice from Wen: “She said, ‘Join different clubs. Don’t be afraid, even as a freshman.’”
Zhao, who majored in hospitality and tourism management at the Isenberg School of Management, decided to join the school’s student chapter of the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality, where she was elected to the executive board for the 2016–17 academic year.
Wen, a sport management major, remembers the experience fondly: “For me, the IPO Buddy Program is about companionship and taking care of each other. IPO buddies are there to make the transition smoother and easier. But after that transition, that mentor-like relationship just becomes friendship.”
Coordinated by IPO, the Buddy Program pairs international students with student mentors to help ensure they have a successful transition to academic and social life at UMass Amherst. This effort is supported by a number of events. Buddies have enjoyed group outings to The Big E in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and the amusement park Six Flags New England.
They’ve cheered on UMass football against Boston College at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots. And they’ve enjoyed lively conversation over free food and drink as part of IPO’s twice-monthly International Coffee Hours.
Participation in the program has grown substantially since its inception in the spring of 2012, and there are now nearly 300 pairs of buddies assigned each year. There is also a trend of mentees becoming mentors.
Zhao became a mentor after she studied abroad in Switzerland. “I wanted to be an IPO buddy and see other international students and see them grow,” says Zhao. Her mentee, Nanyoung “Nancy” Ko ’20, credits her for making the adjustment to life at UMass much easier. “I was new to the environment, so everything was unfamiliar to me,” says Ko, an anthropology major from Korea. “[She] gave me tips to balance my free time and my studies. Also, I felt at ease having conversations with her because she sympathized with me on the culture difference I experienced at UMass.”
Lasting friendships may be one of the Buddy Program’s long-term rewards. Charlotte Hoff, a senior in management and communication and a member of Commonwealth Honors College, has forged an enduring friendship with her buddy, Gabriella Cofini from Australia. Hoff first learned of buddy programs while studying abroad on a UMass Amherst exchange program at the University of Wollongong in Australia. Having a mentor at Wollongong “made a world of difference,” so she committed to joining the IPO Buddy Program upon her return to Amherst. “I wanted to do what my mentor had done for me, and more,” says Hoff, who cites the camaraderie of crosscultural friendship to be among her most enriching college experiences.
“As cliché as it sounds, it really does change your life.” Cofini adds that her friendship with Hoff was instant and has outlasted her time at UMass: “Not only was Charlotte a helpful buddy, we also gained a lifetime friendship out of it, and I’m so lucky to have experienced that.” —Sean Gordon