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IBuddy Program - International Students - 09.25.21
The iBuddy program provides peer-to-peer support for new international students at UD. Mentors offer friendship, encouragement and opportunities for socialization, including the icebreaker activity taking place in this photo during a picnic at Edna C. Dickey Park in Newark. Pictured here, from left to right, are Khushboo Verma, Mohammad Dabash, Basel Elkhapery, Dyala Aljagoub, Adriana Verdezoto Alvarado, Tommy Panezai, and Wilder Acuna Gonzalez.

You’ve got a friend in me

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Wenbo Fan

iBuddy mentoring program supports international students while benefiting the UD community

Think of the word “terrifying,” and a few standards likely come to mind: Roller coasters, zombie movies and that recurring dream in which you are walking the halls of your high school inexplicably naked. But… coffee? Not exactly on most people’s fear register.

Then again, most people have never packed up their lives and moved to a foreign country with a foreign coffee protocol.  

“It was scary,” said Khushboo Verma about the first time she ordered a hot beverage on Main Street in Newark, Delaware. This was 2018, and she had just relocated to the U.S. from her native India. “They asked so many things, and I remember thinking: Why are there so many questions? I just want a coffee!” 

Verma, a doctoral student at the University of Delaware studying biomechanics and movement science, can still recall the pressure she felt from under-caffeinated customers behind her as she decided between unfamiliar categories, like whole milk and 2%. And she can still remember pretending to sip her too-bitter drink in front of her husband and some friends, because — although too embarrassed to admit so at the time — Verma hadn’t known to add the sugar herself. 

This seemingly routine exercise of ordering a coffee — really a series of cultural tripwires — is one of countless hurdles experienced by international students. At UD, these students report a learning curve navigating everyday experiences Americans typically take for granted, from deciphering public transit to searching for an apartment to decoding guidelines from the Department of Motor Vehicles (okay, even longtime citizens struggle with that one).

Helping with this difficult transition is iBuddy, a support program built by UD’s Center for Global Programming and Services. Each year, incoming Blue Hens from around the globe have the option of pairing up with a peer mentor already acquainted with the UD experience. After undergoing iBuddy training, these mentors provide friendship and encouragement while answering questions about life on campus and beyond. They prevent common mishaps — think booking a flight to Newark, New Jersey — and they also organize events (picnics, dinners, trips to the UDairy Creamery) to facilitate socialization and a spirit of community.

IBuddy Program - International Students - 09.25.21
A doctoral student and iBuddy mentor, Khushboo Verma (left) is hoping to work as a research scientist for a company, such as Nike, where she can continue applying her knowledge of biomechanics. “Mentoring work has made me realize that I am definitely a social creature,” said Verma, pictured here with business student Shuchi Sanghvi. “I will definitely look for a job with a good work environment. But if I don’t find a perfect team, I feel that I have gained enough experience to create one.”

“This shows the strength and resiliency of the international students at UD, their generosity and willingness to support each other and give back,” said Matt Drexler, the University’s assistant director for international student engagement and supervisor of iBuddy. The program also, he added, speaks to an important UD value: enriching the educational experience for everyone on campus by nurturing diverse perspectives in the classroom. “Internationalization is key to the teaching, research and service mission at the University — from top to bottom.”

For iBuddy mentees, the benefits are both logistical and emotional. Consider Annanya Venkataraman, a Moroccan-born computer science major who was living in Uganda before coming to UD. On her second day in America, while attempting to obtain a student identification card on campus, she found herself hopelessly turned around. With no SIM card yet for her cell phone, GPS navigation was not an option, so she called her iBuddy mentor.

“We had never met in person, and she was in a lab working on her doctoral research at the time, but she dropped everything to give me a ride to my hotel,” said Venkataraman, a junior at UD. “She is an amazing person. Now, anytime I feel homesick, I will text her to meet up. I am away from my family, but she helps fill that void.” 

These rewards, mentors attest, are a two-way street. 

“It is gratifying to be the support structure, to see someone relieved and happy because of what they learned from you,” said Shubh Pahwa, a senior chemical engineering major and iBuddy mentor who hails from Gurugram, India. One of the ways to provide this support and mitigate culture shock, Pahwa added, is to pass along hard-earned wisdom from his own time as a new international student. For instance: Do not feel unnerved if fellow Blue Hens walk out of a course at its designated end time — even if a professor is still talking — to make their next commitment on time. 

“The first class I attended on campus was general chemistry, a 50-minute lecture that began at 8 a.m.,” Pahwa said. “At 8:51 a.m., it was still going, but students began to leave. I was shocked, because if I had done that in India, where instructors can talk for as long as they want, I would have been sent to the supervisor for disrespect. Here, the professor actually apologized.”

On the other end of the spectrum, mentors like Rachel Spruill, a third-year Honors student set to graduate this spring, could not be more local — although she is currently studying abroad in London, she hails from Newark. Having grown up in the University’s backyard, you would think she already feels dialed into its culture. But this is not always the case: “I am part of the World Scholars program, so I did my first semester at UD in Italy,” Spruill said. “When I came back, I only had a few weeks before the pandemic hit, so I never really had the chance to get involved, and I was feeling pretty disconnected from my campus community. Volunteering with iBuddy is a way for me to make those connections for myself and others.” 

Spruill, a political science major with a minor in Chinese, draws on her study abroad experiences to better empathize with the challenges of her international student advisees — she vividly remembers struggling to find her way to class at Rome’s John Cabot University, a school whose buildings are scattered throughout the city. When such empathy building happens, according to Drexler, it helps create a synergy you don’t see on a lot of college campuses: “There is a false dichotomy between inbound and outbound programming,” he said. “At UD, we think more broadly about what it means to be a global University.”

Matt Drexler is the University’s assistant director for international student engagement and supervisor of iBuddy.

For Verma, the doctoral student who struggled with her first coffee order in America, becoming an iBuddy mentor was, at least initially, a way to make friends, and she succeeded in this effort — in particular, she connected with one mentee from a different area of India who, she said, has helped her understand her own culture better. The pair became so close, they recently took a trip to Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia. But beyond friendship, Verma gained something unexpected from the iBuddy program.

“I have grown from a shy and timid Asian girl to a comfortable student leader,” she said. 

About a year after joining iBuddy, having honed her communication and relationship-building skills, Verma felt confident enough to branch out further, becoming a social ambassador for the Indian Graduate Student Association at UD. Now, as the organization’s president, she steers the group, providing a sense of welcome and community for members. 

“Holding student leadership roles outside my Ph.D. curriculum is my escape,” Verma said. “It gives me a sense of belonging. Research can get very lethargic sometimes, with months of work to find some results. On days like that, a little win — like organizing a successful event or being able to help a mentee — works wonders for my mental health.”

Channeling the personal fulfillment that comes out of iBuddy participation into bettering the wider community is a common theme among participants.

“I feel like this program has changed my life in many ways, because it has helped me become more open-minded, more curious,” said Ioannis Vasileios Chremos, a mentee-turned-mentor from Greece earning his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering. “Through iBuddy, I’ve connected with people from India, Bangladesh, China — people I would not necessarily have met otherwise. I learn about other cultures and backgrounds so, in that way, I still feel like a mentee myself. I’ve seen how multidimensional the world truly is. The Greek way is not the only way.”  

Chremos is able to apply this worldview in his work as vice president for student affairs with UD’s Graduate Student Government. The role allows him to advocate for the international study body with UD’s administrative leaders who, he said, are not just providing lip service when they talk about the importance of a global mindset: “They are open, and they make the time to sit down and discuss any issues of concern.”

Chremos has also been inspired to volunteer with local charity organizations, including the Ronald McDonald House of Delaware, where he and fellow iBuddy participants once put on a show for sick children. Some showcased a dance or song traditional to their culture, while he read fables from Aesop, the Greek storyteller.

IBuddy Program - International Students - 09.25.21
International students Shubh Pahwa (left) and Gbenga Taiwo take a break from their studies to enjoy a picnic, one of many meetups organized by iBuddy mentors throughout the academic year.

In other words, iBuddy makes for better, kinder humans. But it also makes for more successful ones, too. 

Omar Abdullah, a senior environmental engineering major, already has a job lined up after graduation — he will be working with SABIC, a multinational chemical manufacturing company that seeks to conserve the world’s water supply while making cars and planes more fuel efficient. The job could take Abdullah anywhere in the world but, even if he ends up based in his native Saudi Arabia, where the company is headquartered, he will need to interface with people from different professional and cultural backgrounds. Because of his iBuddy work mentoring peers from Kenya, India and Oman, he said he feels prepared. 

“Engineering is not just about your technical knowledge,” he said. “That knowledge is essential, but it is useless if you do not know how to communicate with people or how to address issues with engineers from other disciplines, administrators and government officials. Communicating with people who are different from you is key to success in any field, and this is exactly what we do at iBuddy.”  

It sounds like a pretty lofty goal, learning to bridge cultural divides and set oneself up for career success. But iBuddy participants attest: Achievement in this arena comes with a little help from your peers and a solid commitment to a series of seemingly small, but actually quite meaningful, steps — like, say, ordering a coffee.

After a few false starts, Verma has that one down pat. 

“A latte,” she said when asked for her usual. “Sometimes hot, sometimes iced. I add vanilla and then sugar, and — I know what this is now — 2% milk.”

About the Center for Global Programs and Services

The Center for Global Programs and Services (CGPS) at UD is home to the operations of UD Global, which includes Study Abroad, International Student and Scholar Services, World Scholars Program and Global Outreach and Partnerships. The center is committed to providing leadership and innovation in support of the University's global initiative and campus internationalization efforts. Focused on a student-centered approach, CGPS provides expert advising and a wealth of global engagement opportunities to the UD campus community, including the weekly International Coffee Hour in the fall and spring semesters.

Follow and engage with @UDGlobal on Twitter and Instagram for the latest updates on everything global happening at UD.

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