The national climate for foreigners has gotten chilly in the past year, but Alexis Schad is trying to make it warmer at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
The international business major from Shiloh founded the Global Ambassador Program, which pairs foreign students with American “buddies.”
The idea is to help students thousands of miles from home to socialize, make friends and maneuver in unfamiliar territory.
“Something as simple as ordering food can be difficult for international students, especially if there’s a language barrier,” said Alexis, 22. “The way restaurants and menus work (in the United States) is really different from other countries.”
The group matched about 40 pairs of buddies last semester and 25 this semester. Another 300 supporters get email notices about potlucks, game nights and field trips.
Mackenzie Rogers, 19, of Marshall, Illinois, is paired with Ajim Uddin, 26, of Bangladesh, who came to SIUE last fall to earn a master’s degree in economics and finance.
Mostly, the two just talk on the phone or meet for dinner at an Indian restaurant that serves food similar to Ajim’s home cuisine. Mackenzie also helped proofread his application for doctoral studies.
“If I need any explanation for something I don’t understand, any aspect of American culture, I feel like I can ask her, and she will explain it to me,” said Ajim, who speaks with a strong accent.
Ajim has a host family in Edwardsville through the SIUE International Hospitality Program, but sometimes he needs to talk college student to college student.
If I need any explanation for something I don’t understand, any aspect of American culture, I feel like I can ask her, and she will explain it to me.
Ajim Uddin on help from his American buddy
Ajim wondered what “Uptown Funk” meant after hearing the Bruno Mars hit. American slang terms and shorthand also can cause confusion.
Mackenzie, a freshman in pre-med, always has been interested in other cultures and took four years of Spanish in high school. She thinks the Global Ambassador Program has benefited her as much as Ajim.
“I’ve learned a lot about his culture that I didn’t know,” she said. (The two most important Muslim holidays are Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha.)
“It’s also helped me grow as a person and as a student. It’s made me get more involved on campus. It was the first organization I joined at SIUE.”
Struggling to fit in
Foreign students at any college or university face challenges. Just ask Liang Ge, 27, who came to SIUE from China in 2014 to earn a master’s degree in educational leadership.
He describes Chinese people as more “cautious” than Americans, reluctant to start conversations or make small talk with strangers. They’re unlikely to reveal feelings or personal information without developing close relationships over time.
Chinese students often refrain from asking questions in class out of respect for professors, who are considered authority figures.
“I had a hard time (my first semester at SIUE) because the classes were too hard for me, and I felt isolated,” Liang said. “I didn’t make any American friends.”
The idea of taking part in campus activities wasn’t appealing because he didn’t know whether anyone would talk to him.
The situation improved when Liang got involved with the Global Ambassador Program last year. He’s now its treasurer, and his “buddy” always is trying to get him out of the house.
“I had a strong feeling that this organization had the potential to make a real difference on campus,” said Liang, who also works in the Office of International Studies.
“I talk to international students on a daily basis, and I know there’s a gap between them and the campus. They’re not that involved in clubs, fraternities and other organizations.”
The Global Ambassador Program sponsors field trips to places such as Pere Marquette State Park and the St. Louis Zoo, which is a treat for foreign students who don’t have cars and aren’t comfortable with public transportation.
A recent skating party at Steinburg Skating Rink in Forest Park included cake for two foreign students celebrating birthdays.
“Think about if you were in a foreign country, and it was your birthday, and you didn’t have family to celebrate it with,” Alexis said. “Think about how meaningful if would be to have a whole group of people singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you.”
Bringing students together
Alexis is a 2012 graduate of O’Fallon Township High School. Her parents, John and Jean Schad, both are dentists.
Alexis had little contact with foreign students her first two years at SIUE. Then she met three Iranians on a school trip to New Orleans and started to pursue other international friendships. She’s now dating Sajjad Salam, a engineering graduate student from Tehran.
Alexis didn’t expect to become a campus activist, but it has turned out to be a key part of her education.
“It’s been a really awesome transformative experience for me personally,” she said. “It’s helped me grow as a leader in general, but it’s also helped me get in tune with people’s needs and help meet those needs.”
The Global Ambassador Program became an official organization in the spring of 2016 with Alexis as president. About 50 students showed up for an informational session in August.
Mackenzie and Ajim sat next to each other so they became buddies. She didn’t waste any time giving him a taste of American culture.
“It was my birthday the next day,” she said. “All my friends were going to B-dubs (Buffalo Wild Wings). So I called him and invited him to go with us.”
Ajim was fascinated. He had never been to such a crowded restaurant with so many TV sets.
His wings were a little too hot, despite the fact that Mackenzie had helped him order. She thought people from Bangladesh liked spicy food but discovered that cooks use different seasonings.
I never could have imagined that the attitudes or climate toward foreign-born people in the United States would change so dramatically in such a short period of time.
Alexis Schad on anti-immigration forces
“It was fun,” Ajim said. “It was my first time eating outside of campus. It was an interesting experience. ... I want to meet a lot of people, and otherwise I won’t be able to meet them.”
Alexis will graduate at the end of summer semester and still is weighing her options. She hopes to someday work in community development or international education.
Utmost in her mind is laying the groundwork to keep the Global Ambassador Program going after she leaves.
Alexis just got the good news that the group was named Best Student Organization by SIUE Student Government and Best New Student Organization by the SIUE Kimmel Leadership Center.
“I never could have imagined that the attitudes or climate toward foreign-born people in the United States would change so dramatically in such a short period of time,” she said. “I think this organization is more important than ever to make them feel comfortable.”