Program helps international students reach into the community

Mariko Hasebe, a Ph.D. candidate in UW–Madison’s Pharmaceutical Sciences Division, saw a divide. She noticed that her international and American peers gathered in separate groups.

Such observations inspired Hasebe, who comes from Tokyo, Japan, to adopt a personal mission to encourage more intercultural mingling.

“I want to … reduce the gap between international and domestic … As an international student, maybe I can do something,” she says. “I also like to introduce my culture to whoever is interested.”

Hasebe has found a way to pursue her mission—through a UW–Madison program called International Reach. As an added bonus, the Reach program offers her a welcome break from working in the lab and opens a door to the larger community.

International Reach provides international students with training and opportunities to share their perspectives and culture in local schools, campus venues and community settings. Reach volunteers promote cross-cultural dialogue and exchanges with their American peers on campus and with others beyond campus.

The Madison Friends of International Students, a non-profit community organization, started International Reach in the 1990s to provide activities for spouses of international students and scholars who couldn’t get work visas.

“Reach was … a way to offer some kind of activity, some way to meet community members, and meet domestic students through giving presentations about their home countries and culture,” says Kasandra Brown, International Reach program assistant. “We’ve kind of grown from that.”

UW–Madison’s International Student Services (ISS) has taken over coordination of the Reach program, which currently has a roster of more than 100 volunteer speakers from 22 countries – mostly graduate and undergraduate students, plus a few spouses and special students.

Inviting requests for speakers

The program invites schools, community and campus groups to request speakers to discuss culture, politics and other topics, says International Reach coordinator Katie Wirka.

Wirka especially would like more teachers to participate: “We try to emphasize that this is something that you can incorporate in your curriculum.”

In 2011-12, International Reach worked with 92 volunteers representing 22 of the approximately 112 countries found on the UW-Madison campus. That year, Reach volunteers fulfilled 22 requests – 15 from campus, four from K-12 schools, and three from community organizations and programs—and reached more than 1,700 students, staff, faculty and community members.

The volunteers interact with their audiences in a variety of ways. They do outreach on campus, in schools, in senior centers, and in places up to an hour outside of Madison. Through Reach, students also met with residence hall coordinators and directors to offer insights on working with international students.

“They’ve done a lot of really good work sitting down and being very honest with staff about ‘Here’s what we have encountered,’” says Wirka. “It’s been really beneficial I think.”

Reach volunteer Audrey Forticaux, a Ph.D. candidate from Lyon, France, participated on a panel to advise international undergraduates on how to apply to U.S. graduate programs.

Forticaux also has introduced a group of middle school students in Madison to French cuisine, serving bread, cheese, and pâté. The younger ones were hesitant to try the pâté, a canned-meat delicacy.

She wanted to convey how the French value food.

“Lunchtime here is very not appreciated, whatsoever. It’s like it doesn’t exist, people have a peanut butter sandwich, and they’re happy,” says Forticaux. In France, she explains, “Sometimes it’s three courses, but for us, there’s nothing fancy about it.”

She also told students about her hometown and appreciated their efforts to speak French.

“They were really trying hard… It was clear that they were understanding me,” she says. “And then they were more shy about trying to talk to me, but they did. They spoke to me in French. That was really cool.”

Hasebe has had experiences with a different demographic group. During visits to the Lussier Senior Center and the Madison Senior Center, she has engaged in serious conversations about nuclear contamination in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima power plant disaster in March 2011.

She also encountered tensions rooted in the U.S.-Japanese conflict in World War II, when she met three or four seniors who had served in the war. She notes, “I’m fine, because I wasn’t there.” She also was asked if there were samurai in Tokyo.

“There is some misunderstanding, or some misconception about each culture. That could be a little bit difficult,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t know how to approach those issues.”

In such situations, her strategy is to “listen first” and then share her opinion. She appreciates learning how people here view her country, and sharing the reality of contemporary Japan.

Benefits for volunteers

In addition to fostering cross-cultural dialogue and understanding, volunteering for International Reach offers personal benefits.

“We do market this program as a way for you to get out there, learn skills,” says Wirka, “and presentation skills are crucial in anything that you do now.”

The program offers workshops on presentation skills, and added leadership training after volunteers indicated an interest, Wirka says.

Hasebe, who was among those requesting the leadership component, now serves as the co-chair of her department’s student chapter and as a member of the Division of International Studies’ Student Advisory Board on Global Leadership.

International Reach also helps volunteers build relationships within their group. The program hosts social gatherings, where Hasebe and Forticaux reconnected after first meeting in an academic setting.

Forticaux has attended a few events, but, due to other conflicts, has missed others. “I’d like to develop more the social interactions with the volunteers,” she says.
She says her experiences with Reach have helped her better adapt to life in Madison.

“[It] helped me see how different we are,” says Forticaux. “I try to adapt the way I would do things. It helps me being more adjusted.”

She has noticed more differences than she expected: “I knew there were going to be some, because obviously this is not France. I was surprised by how different it actually is.”

Forticaux particularly sees differences in social relationships and in food culture. She finds that it takes acquaintances here longer to open up about their personal lives to her, as compared to her experiences in France.

Hasebe likes to focus on the similarities that she’s observed, and uses International Reach to point these out.

“I just want to tell them that we are very similar. Just the language, how we talk or speak might be different and the culture different, but we are the same, human,” says Hasebe. “We share the same emotions and thinking. But it’s difficult to have those ideas unless you talk.”

Reflecting on their cultures

As they compare and contrast their home cultures with life in the United States, Reach volunteers also find themselves reflecting on their own culture.

“I noticed and the students have noticed that it forces them to learn more about their own culture, and really consider and think about where they come from,” says Wirka.

Their Reach experiences have inspired both Hasebe and Forticaux to expand their outreach efforts.

Hasebe wants to incorporate global outreach into her career. She initially planned to be a researcher or faculty member, but she’s now setting her sights on “something more global.”
“I really want to use this experience in my career eventually,” says Hasebe.

Forticaux started volunteering beyond International Reach to meet more people in Madison. She helped Madison’s Wil-Mar Center at a couple of major summer events — the Fete de Marquette and Orton Park Festival.

Forticaux says she’s “just trying to do something else outside of chemistry and see what’s going on in Madison in general.”

She values what she can bring to the community, especially with the help of International Reach.

“It provides a service to the community in general. And I think it’s a good way to help international students like me being part of that community and try to open their mind to other cultures and other places.”

— by Nora G. Hertel