Buddy program helps international students transition to life in US

Maureen McCarthy (right), a UMSL Mosaic Ambassador hangs out in the Millennium Student Center with her international buddy Lotte Jonsson, a graduate student from Denmark. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Having studied abroad in Costa Rica and in Ireland, Maureen McCarthy learned firsthand how alienating being a stranger in a strange land could be.

Now back stateside at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, she jumped at the chance to help incoming international students transition to life in St. Louis and on campus through the UMSL Mosaic Ambassadors program.

“UMSL’s Office of International Studies and Programs really advocates the international buddy program to returnees,” said McCarthy, a senior double majoring in philosophy and anthropology and a student in the Pierre Laclede Honors College at UMSL, who was assigned three international buddies this fall from Saudi Arabia, Denmark and Germany.

After her two stints abroad, McCarthy understood what it’s like for international students who come to St. Louis, and she was eager to take part in UMSL’s international buddy program.

“I know how it feels to be all alone in a new country and new city, and not really knowing the best places to go or how to meet people and how to get around the city, I realized that it would be a big help to give back to international students so they have connections and somebody to show them around and just be there for them,” McCarthy said.

Prior to their arrival, she reached out to them via social media so they could get a glimpse of each other’s lives.

“We’re all friends on Facebook, I also sent them emails and communicated with them through WhatsApp Messenger,” she said.

McCarthy’s main role was to act as a mentor, giving her buddies advice on university life, coursework, social networking and student life.

“They were curious about the living situation, the best places to live and even what the weather is like in St. Louis,” she said.

McCarthy’s buddy from Denmark, Lotte Jonsson, a graduate student studying political science, chose UMSL after looking at the school’s website.

“I loved the campus and I was like ‘This looks awesome,’” she said.

Jonsson exchanged a ton of emails with McCarthy before departing for St. Louis.

“I had questions about housing and she was very helpful,” Jonsson said. “When you’re in another city and you don’t know where to live that was my biggest question. But Maureen helped me make a smooth transition.”

While the buddies have the option of having their UMSL ambassador pick them up at the airport, Jonsson declined the offer because her flight came in so late. But she was grateful for the gesture.

“It’s a great program in that it provides a welcoming environment,” she said.

The students are also taken on several group excursions across the area including, the Central West End, Soulard Farmer’s Market, Laclede’s Landing and the Gateway Arch.

“It gives them a taste of St. Louis right off the bat, and they can meet UMSL students and other international students so they have connections right away instead of feeling lost and without knowing anybody,” McCarthy said.

The UMSL Mosaic Ambassadors program was originally called the Study Abroad Ambassadors, and began in 2010.

The newly named program is an affiliate group of the larger St. Louis Mosaic Ambassadors run by the St. Louis Mosaic Project. The Project’s Mosaic Ambassadors group encompasses nearly 300 individuals throughout the region who strive to be a welcoming presence for immigrants.

The UMSL group is designed to meet the specific needs of international students, helping them transition smoothly to the US and thrive during their first months. The hope is that the international students will have such a positive experience that they’ll stay in the region after graduation.

Nearly 70 UMSL students have participated as ambassadors since the program’s inception, welcoming close to 200 incoming international students so far.

This fall, 14 UMSL students welcomed nearly 40 incoming international students.

The program is open to all UMSL students wishing to be ambassadors. Click here to learn more about the program.

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