International students explore volunteer work at UW-Madison

American students today are exposed to the idea of doing public service by the time they reach high school, if not earlier.  By the time they enter college, volunteering has become second nature.

That’s not necessarily the case for students who come to U.S. universities from other countries. International students often get their first taste of volunteer work while in college.

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, many international students discover volunteer opportunities through the Morgridge Center For Public Service and International Student Services (ISS), home to the Millennium Development Goals Awareness Project (MDGAP) and the ISS Reach Program. Both the Morgridge Center and ISS are located in the Red Gym.

Volunteer options, service learning

The Morgridge Center for Public Service encourages all UW–Madison students to get involved with volunteer programs and service–learning classes (for which students can earn credit). Peer advisors can help students find opportunities that match their interests.

A large number of international students volunteer through the Badger Volunteer Program, which focuses on education, public health and sustainability, says Xintian Liu, a peer advisor from China. Through this program, students choose community partners where they will volunteer one to four hours per week.

“Some students pick a program based on their major,” Liu says. “Others are interested in cross-cultural volunteer opportunities. A majority of our international students are from China and Korea. We also have some Middle Easterners and Europeans.”

To increase involvement, the Morgridge Center held an International Open Student House last semester, aimed at helping students from other countries explore public service opportunities.

Liu, a junior majoring in psychology and statistics, volunteered last year with the afterschool program at Madison’s Lake View Elementary School.

“We were involved with different activities each week, based on what the children required on a particular day,” she says. “We read stories, played, taught them letter pronunciation and words, helped them with homework and projects.”

She adds, “During the second semester, I volunteered at a middle school with a team of five members that I led. It was similar to the elementary school, except that there was more tutoring math, serious homework and projects.”

Liu talks about what led to her interest in volunteering:

“China did not have any volunteer opportunities for me. Many of my American friends were volunteering so I was curious. I was also indecisive about a psychology major my freshman year, so I was keen to work with children. This program is really convenient for international students because we do not need to explore the Madison area by ourselves or pay for transportation.”

She adds, “I really loved the experience. It is so different and something I’ve never done before. I was really glad to help the students and learn a lot about community service. I think it has so much meaning. We learn so much knowledge in school and the only way we can apply it is when we work in the real world.”

International students often worry that their language skills might be a drawback. Liu tells them: “Be brave. Go out and try new things. It is really rewarding.”

Linking UN goals with service

Started in 2009, the Millennium Development Goals Awareness Project aims to inform students about the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, while providing them with knowledge and skills to help tackle global challenges. MDGAP uses social media to reach out to UW’s student population, distributes educational materials, hosts United Nations speakers, and coordinates community service days.

Community service events have included visits to Porchlight Inc., Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin, Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability, Growing Power, Habitat for Humanity and Fitchburg Fields.

“We have students representing approximately 115 countries every year,” says Marilee Sushoreba, who coordinates MDGAP. “Overseas students are interested in gaining a deeper knowledge in issues like poverty and hunger and how they are dealt with in the Madison area. It also gives them the opportunity to give back to their host culture, while learning new skills and meeting individuals.”

Tianchan Wang, a senior from China majoring in sociology, recalls her first volunteer experience through MDGAP: “Around 20 of us met up at around 8 am at the Red Gym for a short meeting before we departed to the Domestic Abuse Intervention Services office. We were then taken to a site to visit women who are victims of domestic violence.

“It was really an experience to be exposed to such a different atmosphere. I spent the rest of the day helping them clean, sort out donations, clothes and food,” she says. “Speaking to some of those women about their experiences helped understand the third millennium development goal of the United Nations – to empower women and promote gender equality.”

She adds, “I’m really glad that people are providing this service to vulnerable women. I never heard of this in China. Women usually seek help from their own family. Moreover, my volunteer work in China involved only working at educational organizations. So I really loved my experience at DAIS.

Wang says, “I would recommend this to any student especially from another culture. It is an opportunity to learn about the US and the services available to people here.”

Noting that volunteers run these services with no government intervention, she says, “It is inspiring to see how people can help each other in powerful ways.”

Antia Gonzalez Ben, from Spain, volunteered last semester through MDGAP at the River Food Pantry on the east side of Madison. She acted as a liaison for Latino families who were not fluent in English during the pantry’s “free hot-meal” Fridays.

Ben, a first-year Ph.D. student in curriculum and instruction, also has done volunteer work connected with her field of study.

“I was also involved with the annual Latino Youth Summit through the Educational Outreach program, which was a summit to persuade middle school Latino students to attend UW–Madison or other colleges,” she says. The three-day program included workshops to introduce young people who would be first-generation college students to a college setting.

“There isn’t a strong connection to the community like I sense in the United States in Spain, my home,” she says. “Besides, graduate students often live in a bubble. Experiences like these help you stay grounded as they give you a realistic view of what’s actually going on. As my major involves studying students and education, interacting with them helped me apply the theories I learned.”

In addition, Ben says, “I developed a dual-language program for an elementary school – Nuestro Mundo, where I volunteered for a semester.” Nuestro Mundo is a dual-language charter school in the Madison Metropolitan School District.

“Interacting with professors and students only is not as rewarding or fulfilling,” she explains. “Giving back to the community helps you on a personal level because people are struggling with different issues. Public service really helped me learn about American culture and the problems Madison faces. It is truly a rewarding experience – both professionally and academically.”

According to Sushoreba, MDGAP is expanding its community partnerships this spring to include Growing Partners – Madison, We International and Madison AIDS Network.

Sharing stories, trading perspectives

ISS Reach provides opportunities for international students to share their stories with students, teachers, and organizations in the Madison area.

Fei Men, a fourth-year doctoral student in consumer science, gave his perspectives on American culture as a guest speaker at a roundtable discussion with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin in February.

“I talked about my experience at UW–Madison, praising the inclusive environment it has provided to international students like me. Overall, it was a pleasant experience,” says Men, who is from China.

“Our discussion also involved the US media’s incorrect portrayal of other countries, especially Africa and Asia. I pointed out that reports on Africa have been dominated by images of war and disease, whereas Asia, especially China, has been pictured as a threat to the US and international order, rather than a companion,” he explains.

“I reiterated to the audience that having media with different voices is not bad, but the readers must do their own research before forming their opinions. Otherwise they would just be convinced by biased media sources. The audience agreed and asked for additional sources of information,” he says.

“In China, organized volunteering opportunities are limited,” Men says. “I signed up to volunteer at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. I certainly got more volunteering experience in the US, which I have enjoyed and appreciate.”

Men’s volunteer speaking has given him a fresh perspective on the United States and its people.

“Through this conversation with the PSC members, I realized that many Americans are very keen on cultural exchange experiences. They are aware of the demographic change with the influx of immigrants and people of color in the country and want to adapt to the new environment,” he says.

“I also learned that cultural exchange is not only valuable to local residents, but also for international students. Sometimes their assumptions about Americans are just as biased as those made by Americans on them. We really need to engage in the public conversations like the roundtable to make communication and understanding easier.”

— by Neha Alluri