W&M nurtures global friendships

For some international students in America, their U.S experience begins and ends at the campus gates.

Not at the College of William & Mary.

Aware of the need for true cultural immersion, the Office of International Students, Scholars, and Programs at the Reves Center for International Studies offers international students a program that matches them with members of the local community in an effort to foster cross-cultural friendships and understanding. Known as the Global Friends Program, this College-community partnership is now entering its third decade. This year there are 89 participants, including 36 new students and nine new host families.

“An important part of the experience of living in another country is the opportunity to learn about that country’s people and culture,” said Steve Sechrist, director of the Office of International Students, Scholars, and Programs. “Personal connections with members of the local community enriches that experience and helps foster a deeper understanding of the host culture. You can learn a lot in the classroom, but there is much to be learned outside the classroom as well.”

Additionally, research indicates that an international student’s adjustment to his or her new environment is enhanced by participation in social and cultural activities, particularly with members of the host community.  The majority of the students participating in the Global Friends program express that their main interest in the program is to become better acquainted with American culture and people outside of the campus community. 

“I wanted an opportunity to engage with the Williamsburg community and meet people outside the William & Mary campus,” said Jan Hubenthal, a first-year Master of Arts in American Studies student from Germany. “I think it is important, especially for international students, to look beyond what you see every day and to engage with people that have absolutely nothing to do with your academic work. In order to really have a rich cultural experience, these contacts are essential, in my opinion.”

Hubenthal was paired with the Kuschner family. Karl Kuschner is a postdoctoral research associate in the physics department who has traveled the world extensively. What impressed him more than the sights and sounds of other lands was being able to interact with the people, to learn a little bit about their customs and culture.

“We hoped to have some interesting conversations and to be able to make an international student’s time here a little more enjoyable,” Kuschner said.

First-year host Sarabeth Spasojevich, who lives in the area with her husband and three children, studied in Prague during college. Like Kuschner, she most valued her interaction with local students and families, and hoped to pass on those experiences to an international student at W&M by becoming a Global Friend.

In a very short period of time, she and her family have formed an intense bond with graduate Chinese student Han Li. They got together at least a half-dozen times during the first semester of the 2011 – 2012 academic year. Han went trick-or-treating with the Spasojevich children, shared Thanksgiving dinner with them, and attended one of the children’s birthday parties.

“They are like the angels in my life,” Li said. “I really appreciate that I can have the chance to know this great family! They brought me so many fantastic memories that I will treasure all the rest of my life.

“I felt so happy when I stayed with them. And I felt that they were also very, very happy to be together with me. I really love this feeling.”
Spasojevich says the relationship has worked out better than her family ever could have hoped.

“My children ask to play Chinese songs on iTunes, eat their meals with chopsticks, play hide-and-seek by counting to 10 in Chinese,” she said. “Han taught them, and so much more.Pumpkin pie and chopsticks? Simone Spasojevich enjoys Thanksgiving dessert.

“She's been such a great friend for our family, and we've really valued the experience of talking about her culture and the differences, and similarities, between us.”

Hubenthal admits that he wasn’t looking for “a surrogate family” when he joined Global Friends. Rather, he hoped to build new friendships.

“For me, Global Friends was a great opportunity to see America from a perspective other than a college campus, which can get quite small after a while. The Kuschners have been absolutely wonderful, they have been nothing but supportive and welcoming. I hope that they have enjoyed getting to know me, learn about my culture, and hear my take on things.”

Kuschner views this year’s Thanksgiving celebration as an example of the ease of the family’s relationship with Hubenthal.

“We had a traditional dinner and didn’t really use it as a teaching moment,” he said, “more like having a friend over to the house. Afterwards we relaxed and talked for a couple of hours.

“We are less in the mode of explaining things and more in the mode of letting Jan enjoy having a place to visit and chat. Plus he has lived in the U.S. as an exchange student, so is familiar with a lot of the nuances.”

Included in the Global Friends program is another initiative of the Office of International Students, Scholars, and Programs: the International Spouse Network (ISN). Designed as a group for international spouses and significant others who accompany their partners to W&M, ISN was established in 2009 when it was recognized that this segment of the international community at W&M could benefit from a support program.

ISN participants share activities that promote friendship and understanding, including English conversation classes, holiday celebrations, movie screenings, cooking, crafts, excursions, and special events. Like students at W&M, they can also join the Global Friends Program and be matched with a community member.

“The friendships that can develop are really amazing,” noted Sechrist.

One look at the relationship that ISN participants Linda Burgess-Getts and Ah Hyun (Ann) Jung have formed is all it takes to appreciate the full value of the ISN.

Burgess-Getts is an adjunct professor in the School of Education who supervises foreign-language student teachers. She had previous experience in leadership training for women in the federal government.

Jung, who took a sabbatical from a corporate job in South Korea, accompanied her husband while he is a visiting scholar at the William & Mary School of Law. Once she arrived in Williamsburg, Jung began auditing courses in the Business School and enrolled in an English as Second Language (ESL) class.

“When we met initially she told me her interests and her desire to return to her corporate position in (South) Korea,” Burgess–Getts said. “I provided insights into career advancement and resources available to Ann. She followed my advice enthusiastically and now will return to her position with a renewed vigor and career path.

“I also have experience with public relations for a variety of organizations, and Ann has used this to enhance her career and resume.”

Jung joined ISN hoping to learn about Williamsburg history, about W&M itself, and life for American women. She says that Burgess-Getts has given her much more than she expected. The two toured Colonial Williamsburg, attended W&M Homecoming events, explored a yard sale, and enjoyed a pipe organ concert.

“She informed and explained about it all,” said Jung, “so I could enjoy and learn (about) life in Williamsburg and the cultures of the U.S. people.

“Most of all, Linda and I have a common interest regarding women's career development. She is senior in her profession, (and knows many things) that I want to learn. She gave me advice on how to win in my career.”

The two meet every Thursday for 90 minutes. Although Burgess-Getts does not speak Korean, and Jung reads English better than she speaks it, the two communicate effectively.

“I try to have her express her ideas each week,” Burgess-Getts says, “and I speak slowly and Ann understands me well. She has explained the culture of her country while we explore various places around campus and Williamsburg.”

Via Skype, the two women will continue to communicate even after Jung returns to South Korea. They have more than a relationship; a friendship has evolved.

“I know that having a relationship with a local person is valuable for the visiting international population at W&M,” Burgess-Getts said.  “I read the literature available about the expectations before my initial meeting with Ann, and all of those examples and instructions were very helpful to begin our friendship.”

Those interested in learning more about the Global Friends program may contact Bronwen Watts, the Global Friends Program coordinator.