Program shows international students the city

By Michelle Cheng

International students will receive a warm welcome and a chance to explore Calgary thanks to the University of Calgary International office.

This year 2,500 international students from 117 countries are attending the U of C. International exchange is often the highlight of a student’s academic career, but entering a new country without local contacts can be an intimidating experience. To help with the transition, U of C International offers the International Community Friendship Program which matches international students with a local host family.

“It started because students would come to the U of C and usually hang out on campus,” said program coordinator Lucia Kovacikova. “Being part of a campus is a great thing but at the same time they come to Calgary to experience Calgary.”

Kovacikova came to Canada when she was 14. She said many international students, upon arrival, tend to stick together and not experience the wider community. The program helps international students branch out from their safety net of others sharing the same experience.

“I really wish that there was a program for me like that,” said Kovacikova. “You get to make friends and actually see the city. I didn’t get to have that; I had to figure it out all on my own.”

“I think the program is really fun,” said Ginny Wong, a masters of biology student who took part in the program last year. “I got to experience the Canadian culture firsthand.”

Meeting at least once a month, families help the student adjust to their new home by taking them off campus and around the city. All U of C students, alumni, faculty and staff members can sign up to have their family matched with an international student. The monthly meetings are flexible and the activities are up to the host family.

“Local families can really benefit because they get to meet people from around the world,” said Kovacikova. “Really there is nothing better than sharing stories about how things are done differently and where they’re from and where they’ve traveled.”

Families are not expected to provide accommodations or expensive activities, which can range from a tour of the city to an invitation to dinner. The program’s only requirements are that friendship and cross-cultural communication are upheld during the activity.

Kovacikova participated in the program’s first year of operation with her family taking on two students. She said the experience left a lasting impression.

“We invited them for Thanksgiving dinner and the stories that came out of that were just fascinating,” said Kovacikova. “It was just incredible really.”

Kovacikova said Calgarians can help to share events, music and culture unknown to newcomers.

“I think there is always that sort of barrier between international students and regular students,” said Kovacikova.

“If you’re new to this country, if you don’t know anyone, that’s a friend for you right there,” said Wong. “Especially if you don’t speak much English, then it’s really tough.”

Programs similar to the International Community Friendship Program are common in universities across the world and are vital to lessen culture shock. This program is toted as a great opportunity for individuals attending, having attended or employed by the university to learn more about the global community.

“You get to meet people from around the world,” said Kovacikova. “And really, there’s nothing better.”