May Lee Moua-Vue came to the United States as the oldest child in a Hmong refugee family. The only one who knew English, she had to grow up quickly, as she helped her parents navigate through a variety of language and cultural barriers, such as doctor’s appointments and setting up insurance.
“My family didn’t speak any English,” Moua-Vue says. “As a young person, I myself had to be the interpreter and translator for everything in my family. I just felt it would’ve been nice if there were people were available to help me and my parents.”
Moua-Vue carried memories of those childhood struggles with her when she joined the International Student Services (ISS) staff at the University Wisconsin–Madison. In 2002, her experiences inspired her to launch BRIDGE (Building Relationships in Diverse Global Environments), a program designed to connect international students with American peers.
“I knew how challenging it was growing up in a society where you are not familiar with the social and cultural norms and the political systems. I just wanted to make it easier for international students as well,” says Moua-Vue, a student advisor at ISS and coordinator for the BRIDGE program.
The program matches incoming international students with U.S. students in a buddy system aimed at bridging cultures.
“We have heard it loud and clear from our international students that their main concerns here is making domestic friends,” Moua-Vue says.
“We would see these students who have been going here for four, five or six years and still didn’t have any American friends; it was just really sad,” she says. “That was one of the main reasons I wanted to have a BRIDGE program.”
What attracts American students?
BRIDGE attracts domestic students who want to connect with their international peers on campus. Some, who are unable to study abroad, see this as an alternative way to have international experiences.
“We have had some students in pharmacy or some other science majors where they really couldn’t afford to leave for a semester or year abroad, so they will do this instead, which is a great idea,” Moua-Vue says.
The program also attracts American students who have just returned from abroad and want to give back, as well as others who simply want to meet international peers.
Desire to be immersed
Lubos Kcral, a graduate student from the Czech Republic, had never been to the United States until he came to study at UW–Madison. Upon his arrival, he wanted to immerse himself fully in the culture, so he turned to the BRIDGE program. He had participated in a similar program in his home country.
“I had four buddies altogether in [Prague], and I wanted to do that same thing here from the other perspective as a student who becomes integrated,” Kcral says.
He was paired with Samantha Weber, a senior from Brown Deer, Wisconsin, who was inspired by her study abroad experience in Madrid to seek out international connections in Madison. Weber saw herself as someone who could help international students transition.
“You need people to show you around, to practice the language with you. You need people to tell you how classes work. I was just pretty overwhelmed when I got to Spain so I thought I could pay it back,” she says.
Kcral and Weber met in early September 2012 and began to build their BRIDGE relationship.
“The first time I saw Sam, I didn’t think she was American,” Kcral says.
Weber laughs. “Yeah, he thought I was Nordic because I am really tall and really blonde, and I was apparently very aggressive when I met him, like my handshake was aggressive.”
“No, not aggressive, firm,” Lubos says with a smirk.
Decade of growth, success
Now in its 10th year, BRIDGE participation has grown from 50 students to 160 students (80 pairs like Kcral and Weber). In another measure of success, Moua-Vue has been contacted by other universities interested in creating similar programs.
She and others associated with BRIDGE want it to continue growing. Currently, more international students want to participate than the program can accept, so international students who are accepted are limited to one semester. Domestic students may participate multiple times.
“I would really like to see the program expand as much as it can,” Moua-Vue says. “One of our main goals with expanding BRIDGE right now is to see little BRIDGEs across campus in the different residence halls, in the different majors and have a prominent faculty or staff member help mentor those BRIDGE groups.”
She is encouraging faculty and staff members to become mentors to enable the program to grow and serve more students.
Last year, Moua-Vue was joined by Jessica Harmatys to help expand the program. Harmatys is the BRIDGE Field coordinator and oversees many of the events throughout the semester.
Building bonds from the start
Events include a talent show, an Adventure Learning Programs (ALPs) team-building day and movie nights. The first event, Harmatys’ favorite, is when the pairs first meet.
“To see them from that moment when they are shaking hands and meeting to the transformation from that point to the end of the night is incredible,” she says.
Throughout the semester, Moua-Vue and Harmatys see the bonds grow even stronger.
“We always tell students that this is not matchmaking in the romantic sense. This is not meant for you to find the love of your life, although it has happened,” Harmatys says.
“Yes we have had BRIDGE marriages,” Moua-Vue adds. While not the aim of the program, this gets at the idea of how connected the BRIDGE participants become.
This is especially apparent at the end of the semester when all program participants must turn in a journal.
“At the end they submit a journal, and we do get a lot of whining like ‘oh, I have to do a journal!’ But at the end, they do a great job on being reflective,” Moua-Vue says. “The journals are great, and I think we as staff members can see how far along our students have grown and learned about different cultures and learning about each other.”
— by Jeff Cartwright