Dec. 8, 2014Vol. 45, Issue 3

How to Be a Good iFriend

Program connects campus with international students

International students show henna tattoos they received at the Global Voices event in fall 2013. The program connects international students with domestic students, among other outcomes.

International students show henna tattoos they received at the Global Voices event in fall 2013. The program connects international students with domestic students, among other outcomes.

CSU, Chico’s Office of International Education is putting the finishing touches on a new program that will establish relationships between long-term, degree-seeking international students and faculty and staff members for the mutual benefit of sharing their cultures and ways of life.

The program, called iFriend and spearheaded by international advisor Cindy Phelps, mimics the style of popular international friendship programs that have existed for quite some time at colleges and universities across the United States. Rather than creating more permanent host-family living arrangements, these friendship programs encourage participants to meet regularly for activities and outings that inform in a fun and active way about American life.

“I personally benefited tremendously from a host-family experience,” says Frank Li, director of International Education, who attended university in the United States as an international student from China. “Not a host family in the sense of living in a host-family setting kind of arrangement; host family in the sense that the family takes one or two international students under its wings and includes them in family outings and family celebrations and family activities so, you know, that during the family time, international students have a place to go.”

This type of arrangement, Li says, serves two purposes: One, it gives the host family an opportunity to get to know somebody from a different country and culture, and two, it gives the international student the opportunity to get to know typical American family life.

“What’s interesting in that type of arrangement,” Li says, “you have friendships established, some of which can last a lifetime. If it’s done correctly, it’s a beautiful thing and has very desirable outcomes.”

The iFriend program fits into Li’s larger vision for ensuring that international students at Chico State are supported, academically and socially.

A couple of years ago, Li produced a document titled “Plan for Providing Effective Support Services for International Students” in which he laid out what actions were needed to ensure that international students were supported for success and that the campus community maximally benefited from those students’ presence here.

One section of the document focuses on “integrative activities,” those designed to integrate international students into the campus community and the larger Chico Experience. The iFriend program, Li believes, will be a positive addition to the integrative, nonacademic support efforts already in place, such as the International Buddy Program, which pairs international students with domestic student mentors, and the student organizations UNITE and International Neighbors.

New international students visit the Lassen Volcanic National Park as part of their orientation this fall. The field trip and other activities help students connect with one another, the University, and the greater community.

New international students visit the Lassen Volcanic National Park as part of their orientation this fall. The field trip and other activities help students connect with one another, the University, and the greater community.

“Our goals are the same as the ones we have for domestic students, and those are success and well-being for these students,” Li says. “We want them to have a productive and rewarding experience, and we want them to have a well-rounded experience and not just come here and be like a bookworm and bury themselves in books and stay in the library, not doing anything else.”

Phelps, who has worked in international education for about 23 years and came to Chico about three years ago, was aware of the concept of friendship programs and knew that creating one at Chico State was a priority for Li, so after settling into her position here, she started the process of carefully designing a program with the help of several international-student interns.

It is hoped that iFriend will launch in the spring, but first, Phelps plans to hold focus groups with students, faculty, and staff to discern interest levels and get their ideas about what the best version of this program would look like. Phelps’ conception of the ideal program is a simple one.

Applicants will fill out a questionnaire that will collect their demographics and allow them to indicate preferences and interests, and then matches will be made. Her idea is that the pairs will be strongly encouraged to meet at least once a month, more if they want, and it is hoped that the focus group feedback will contribute to the list of activity suggestions she and her interns have already been working on.

“Once we get feedback from the students on the things they want to discuss or do or participate in to learn about American culture then we can give more ideas, but we know that it could be like, all right, I really want to know this person, but what do we do?” Phelps says. “So we want to make it as easy as possible for both, make it fun, make it active, make it so there’s English happening.”

The program will be initially confined to faculty and staff hosts because they have already gone through background checks as CSU, Chico employees. Phelps says she would love to extend the program into the community but doesn’t know how that would work logistically.

Phelps plans to continually conduct evaluations to determine what’s working well and get fresh ideas. She also says that if the program becomes popular, they may hold events such as an opening dinner or end-of-semester ceremony.

“We’re hoping that we’ll create some connections and provide some support for international students and help people who maybe have been around the world or maybe haven’t been anywhere meet some really nice students,” she says. “I want to keep it simple.”

Faculty or staff interested in participating in the iFriend program are encouraged to contact Phelps at 530-898-5408 or ciphelps@csuchico.edu.

Kacey Gardner, Public Affairs and Publications 

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