Adjusting to college life can be difficult, but adjusting to college life in a new country, surrounded by new people, new customs and new traditions can be even harder. For Business sophomore Shreyas Poddar, the transition as a freshman international student coming to the University of Michigan was far from easy.
“I (was) disliking my time here, I (had) no friends, just nothing, nothing is going my way,” he said. “You need certain social connections to get into clubs, you need to know certain things to just talk, you need to know certain cultural references to just talk and I just knew nobody here. I just wish that I had a mentor.”
This mentorship idea of got him thinking about how he could learn from his own experiences to help other international students transition more easily into life at the University. As a LSA representative within CSG, he had the opportunity to propose initiatives to affect the student body in a positive way. Motivated to help as many incoming international students as he could to have a friend — a liaison of sorts — Poddar teamed up with LSA juniors Ali Rosenblatt, Seth Schostak and Ayah Issa, also representatives within CSG, to begin planning the program.
“CSG is a really big organization, but when people from different branches manage to collaborate, that’s sort of how it happens,” Issa said. “We were introduced by another person in CSG.”
Dubbed M-Pals, students can apply to be a student guide for new international students. As part of their training, about 25 students attended monthly workshops at the International Center to prepare them for their roles.
M-Pals sent applications to accepted international students until June, when the matchmaking began. Each of the current students were paired with two or three international students, and the pairs exchanged emails over the summer and through the beginning of the school year. On Thursday evening, M-Pals hosted their first event of the school year, where everyone involved in the program met face-to-face, rather than just through email correspondence.
For Rosenblatt, the most important part of the program involved familiarizing international students with the campus. While promotional videos and other forms of information exist to help new students become acquainted with the University, advice directly from students is often more helpful.
“There’s a lot of questions that I think come up before you get to Michigan,” she said. “We try to bridge that gap, that knowledge gap, to kind of even out the playing field of what people know when they come to campus.”
With assistance from the International Center and the Office of New Student Programs, the leaders took into account any possible barriers.
Another major goal of the program is to help connect and create meaningful relationships between students from different backgrounds. Schostak explained the divide between international and domestic students is something CSG recognizes and looks to improve upon.
“I think it’s a really cool community of people who are trying to make the University and campus more inclusive,” he said. “We always felt there was a big gap between international students and domestic students.”
When Schostak asked Public Policy junior Benji Mazin to serve as an M-Pal, he willingly agreed and was paired with Business senior Mencía Lasa. One unique aspect of their situations is that both students are from Spain — this being Lasa’s first year at the University.
Lasa explained that M-Pals made her transition as an international student easier and that she and Mazin have had the opportunity to meet each other’s friends, creating even more connections on campus.
“He’s been really helpful with all the experience itself, he’s given me tips on buildings and what the University is like, the campus … it’s been really easy to adapt to the new environment,” she said.
M-Pals looks to grow in the coming years to support more international students by expanding their base of current Michigan students as well as implementing new ideas and activities for M-Pals to engage in. The opportunity to meet new people is something that many college students look to take advantage of, and for the founders of M-Pals, the experience has been especially meaningful for those who got to pair up with international students.
Issa said while helping to create the program has been rewarding, her favorite part of it all was taking part in its activities, expanding her network and meeting new people.
“I met a lot of people in the workshops, I learned what questions really get you to know more about a person,” she said. “I met more people internationally and I managed to match with an M-Pal, so I got to be a part of my own process. It was amazing not only implementing it but also being a participant.”