SUNY New Paltz program brings international students and community members together for cultural exchange

The Cohn family and SUNY New Paltz international students.

The Haggerty English Language Pathway Program at SUNY New Paltz is seeking local families and individuals interested in becoming community ambassadors for international students studying at the college. A trial program this past spring was successful with a limited number of participants, so the program is being rolled out more widely for the 2017-18 academic year.

Participating students will be paired with like-minded community members based on a short survey of interests. Once paired up, the program coordinator will make introductions by e-mail and the community member will be encouraged to contact their student to schedule an activity.

In the trial run earlier this year, community ambassadors took their students on hikes, visited museums, attended performances, visited local sites like Walkway Over the Hudson and shared meals in restaurants and their homes.

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A few years back, the college had a system in place where international students could practice their English language speaking skills by being paired up with community volunteer “conversation partners.” But while the community ambassador exchange can certainly help a student develop those language skills, that’s not really what this is about.

 

Changing the tone

New Paltz resident Mischa Cohn was inspired to initiate the community ambassador program as a way to counteract the current political climate of negativity toward those of differing backgrounds and nationalities. “I think it’s very brave of these international students to come here, especially in these times, when they’re getting messages that this country isn’t always so friendly to people from other places. I was just thinking, ‘How can I contribute to the resistance,’ and this is one of the things I thought of.”

Cohn reached out to the college to ask if there were any opportunities to connect with international students. Learning that there weren’t any, he initiated the community ambassador exchange and is now serving as its community liaison. “I’m just a community member who wanted to do it for my own personal reasons,” he says. “But when I saw how enriching it was, I wanted to spread the opportunity to other folks.”

 

What the program is like

Cohn says that he and his wife, Anita, and their son Joaquin, 9, got as much out of meeting with their student Yuki this spring as she did. “It’s definitely a two-way street. It was really enriching for all of us to get to know her and hear about her world, and learn about where she’s from in China. And we heard similar things from other families.”

Freelance journalist Anne Gehris is another of the hosts who participated in the spring program along with her husband, Bill and daughters, Lana, 7, and Maya, then-14. “We all loved it. We heard about the program a little late in the game, so we only got to do two outings with our student and her friend. But it was a lovely experience, and what I thought was amazing, was how well-paired we were. They really go out of their way to match your interests.”

In filling out their surveys, many of the students request the opportunity to bring a friend along on outings. In the case of the Gehris family, for example, they were paired with a Chinese student named Elena, who brought along her Korean roommate, Serim, on the excursions they made to the Village TeaRoom and Dia: Beacon museum. “Serim turned out to be super-interesting, too,” notes Anne. “We had very interesting conversations with both girls about music and art. They had not been to Dia yet, and it’s one of our favorite things to do in the valley. What’s great about this program is that it gives you an opportunity to share what you love about this beautiful area with other people.”

The benefit in participating is that “you see how much you have in common with people who come from very, very far away,” she adds. As for the students, “I think that maybe, for a short period of time, they get to be part of a family a little bit. Elena was close to her parents and was missing her family, so it was nice for her, I think, to have a bit of family time here.”

Scheduling for the outings is entirely up to the participants. “You can kind of go at your own pace, and schedule things according to your own availability. It’s not as intense as a foreign exchange program where you host the students in your home and you have house guests.”

And there were no communication issues, Gehris says. “Both Elena and Serim spoke English beautifully. They were very open and very enthusiastic about everything. We were all sad when they had to go home.”

She notes that the ambassador program’s focus on making foreigners feel welcome was a big part of why she got involved. “That’s something I feel strongly about. I’m an immigrant myself, and I can imagine what it would be like to go to a place where the political climate is like it is now in the U.S.”

 

How to get involved

Individuals or families who wish to be paired with a student may send an e-mail expressing their interest to esl@newpaltz.edu. A link to a short online survey of interests will be sent in response, and the students who wish to participate will fill out a similar survey. The pairing process to put together those with overlapping interests is currently taking place, with the hope that all of the participants will be matched up by October, in order to give everyone involved enough time to schedule activities. There is no requirement to keep to a schedule; most of the families met with their student approximately once a month.

The goal is to offer the exchange to all students in the Haggerty program. “We think it’s likely we’ll get 40 or more students who want to participate,” says Cohn, “so we’re hoping to find at least 40 local families or individuals interested in pairing up with the students.”

 

On the college’s side

Jason Serrano is the student advisor for the Haggerty English Language program at SUNY New Paltz and the on-site coordinator for the community ambassador exchange. He is the person who reviews the survey answers and pairs up students with local residents, and took part himself in the spring program.

Serrano has heard a lot of great feedback about the cultural exchange opportunity from students and community participants alike, he says, but his favorite reaction was that of a Japanese student named Moe. “My girlfriend and I were partnered with a student named Yuri, who in turn brought her friends Moe and Saaya along [on outings]. By the end of the program, we had taken the three girls to a nice Italian restaurant in the Bronx and to the Botanical Gardens, and explored Fordham University’s campus (his girlfriend’s alma mater). When it came time for the girls to leave, it was a hard parting for us all.”

He’d expected that reaction from Yuri, Serrano says, because he knew that her time in the U.S. had been a happy one. But it was unexpected from Moe. “Some students really adapt well to life abroad, but others have periods of homesickness, and Moe had not had the easiest time. She enjoyed the school, but was disenchanted with America. She missed the food back home and missed the ability to travel more freely. In fact, she told me she had barely been off-campus during her entire year in America.”

But apparently sharing the experiences afforded by the community ambassador program turned it all around for her. “In the end, Moe seemed to have had her entire opinion on her experience abroad changed. The girls were all teary-eyed and left cards and gifts for my girlfriend and I, with a note to let them know when Linda and I get married. Little do they know that our engagement was a couple of weeks ago, and although we plan on a long engagement, we’ll never forget our first partners and they already have a space on our invitee list!”

Serrano says the college is enthusiastic about continuing the ambassador program this year and beyond. “One early sign-up for the fall program,” he adds, “is Sandra Christian, the wife of the president of SUNY New Paltz. She has put forward her full support of welcoming international students and programs like ours that help us do so.”

On his part, he notes, “I am very proud of the program that Mischa and I have put together here. It is my hope that after a successful fall semester we can invite our community ambassadors to our end-of-semester ceremony so they can support their students again as proud parents would, and also receive recognition for their contribution to our community.”

Ultimately, says Cohn, “it’s just a terrific way to connect with folks from other parts of the world. You share some of your culture and learn something about their culture. That’s the first step — and a great step — toward being a more peaceful planet. It’s a small step, but one we can all do.”

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