By Emily Steinhardt
Excited about the start of fall semester, Saria Austin, a 19-year-old liberal arts major, was ready for whatever it would bring her. Little did she know, the semester was going to be a little different than she expected.
Austin attended Professor Tanya Gardners’ Communication Across Cultures class last semester. As part of the curriculum, students are required to be involved in the Intercultural Friendship Program.
“I wasn’t aware that [by taking the class] we would have the opportunity of having an intercultural partner,” Austin said. “So when Professor Gardner told me about it I was really excited to get involved.”
Despite the excitement, Austin stated she was nervous she would be paired with a partner that didn’t speak English.
“I thought that I wasn’t going to be able to relate to my person because of a language barrier,” Austin said.
That was before she got paired with Ester Ekwale, an 18-year-old student from Nigeria.
Austin is one of 400 students who has been a part of the Intercultural Friendship Program at DCCC since it started in 2012.
The program became an idea when Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Tanya Gardner realized that unless her Communication Across Cultures class experienced an intentional relationship with another culture, they were not going to grasp what she was teaching.
This idea then morphed into a collaborative teaching project between Professor Diane Picciani’s Intermediate English as a Second Language class and Gardner’s Communication Across Cultures class.
The program started with 40 students, 20 from each class.
Gardner said that she and Picciani were giddy when the semester was over.
“Students in both of our classes said that it was the best class they’d ever had,” Gardner said. “They said it was because they weren’t just learning, they were actually experiencing what we had taught them.”
The following semester Picciani left on sabbatical and Gardner had to think of a new way to keep the program going.
Gardner said that she went to the international student orientation and pitched the idea to them and the program has been growing ever since.
What started out with 40 students has grown into a program with more than 400 students.
According to Community Colleges for International Development, a global network of community, technical, and vocational institutions, the goal of the Intercultural Friendship Program is to connect students with first-hand experiences in intentional cross-cultural engagement by partnering incoming international and ESL students with domestic students for a semester-length, one-to-one partnership.
Gardner has students fill out applications at the beginning of the semester and tries to have the pairs made by the end of the second week.
Students get paired based on similar hobbies, majors, interests, or even the desire to travel.
“Ester and I were paired together because we both loved dancing,” Austin said.
“The students organize activities to do with their partner but [IFP] also offers activities for partners to do,” Gardner said. “We have made trips to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the Shofuso Japenese House, and we frequently go to the Blue Cliff Monastery Retreat in Pine Bush in New York.”
The partnership is only for a semester, but Gardner said many last longer.
As for Austin, now 20, the program went above and beyond her expectations.
“It’s an amazing experience that encourages you to step outside of your own box,” Austin said. “Sometimes we can get so comfortable in what we’re used to; we miss the beauty that is diversity.”
Austin said her favorite memory from the program was watching Ekwale open up to her over the semester.
“When we first met each other she told me she was shy,” Austin explained. “But I was really able to see her open up to me and become my friend.”
Additionally, Austin said that Ekwale gave her an amazing perspective into Nigerian culture and made her want to learn more.
Above all, Austin said the best part about being in the program was that she gained a friend.
Students interested in joining the Intercultural Friendship Program should visit room 4343 and ask for Tanya Gardner. You can also reach Gardner via her email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Emily Steinhardt at email@example.com.