Icing on the Cake: University of Iowa’s Friends Without Borders program is more show than substance
By A. Cydney Hayes
When Yiting Hou walked into the Airliner pizza parlor in Iowa City during her first semester at the University of Iowa, she wondered who would be waiting for her. After sitting in her assigned seat, the 18-year-old freshman from Shenzhen, a city in the Guangdong province of China, whose English name is Erin, met her partner, Paige Noble. The two girls immediately hit it off.
“It was a little like speed dating,” said Noble, a 21-year-old junior from Sioux City on the pre-medical track.
Despite the similarities to the flirtatious beginnings of a romantic relationship, this set-up was part of the 2016 kickoff event for the university’s Friends Without Borders program, which matches international freshmen with domestic upperclassmen to hopefully become friends throughout the year. The matches are commonly based on the majors of each student, and, after an event in the beginning of the year run by the International Programs office, the pairs are encouraged to hang out together, usually by grabbing coffee, eating lunch or attending Iowa’s sporting events.
According to the Iowa’s 2016 international student enrollment statistics, the number of international students at Iowa has been steadily increasing since 1960, and this year, 2,624 of these students — 61 percent of all international students — come from China. This Chinese majority is not surprising, since administrators have been recruiting Chinese students through conferences and meetings with high schools in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing since 2007. But as the Chinese population in Iowa City grows, the university is left with the dilemma of how to assimilate them into American college culture. One of the university’s solutions is FWB, created in 2014, seven years after the heavy recruitment of Chinese students began.
FWB is not the only program at Iowa created for the purpose of integrating their Chinese and other international students. The office of International Programs also created Global Buddies, a mentoring program for international exchange students who will only attend the university for a couple semesters, and Life in Iowa, which organizes field trips to farms, restaurants and other classically Iowan spots. Unlike the others, however, FWB aims to introduce both international and domestic students to one another’s cultures, rather than simply trying to force international students to acclimate to American life.
Some pairs, such as Hou and Noble, are outstandingly successful. The two girls often attend basketball games or student productions on campus together, and they both said that they have learned a lot about each other’s culture over the past few months. This weekend, they went to an opera performance on campus, and said they usually hang out every other week or so. However, even for a successful FWB match, creating a friendship out of thin air can be uncomfortable.
“I think we both know a lot about each other now, and we really are friends,” Hou said. “But in the beginning it was a little awkward. I think I was a little shy, and Paige really had to try hard to set up our meetings.”
However, most of FWB’s matches are not so successful. Hou also said that their friendship was more likely to work out from the start since she came to Iowa looking for American friends, and that is oftentimes not the goal of Chinese international students. Most pairs in the program do not become close; some do not click with the partner they were matched with based solely on their field of study, some find it too difficult to schedule times to hang out and some simply do not like, as Noble put it, the “sheer awkwardness of trying to force a friendship.”
But the inherent awkwardness of a friendship matching program is not the only reason why most of FWB’s pairs do not succeed. Each year, participation and perceived success of the pairs have declined. In 2014, there were about 40 pairs, but this year only saw about 15, with only 3 or 4 successful ones. Nearly all the statistics from FWB are estimates, since many students tend to stop answering emails from FWB coordinators when they decide they are no longer interested in the program.
“It’s extremely difficult to measure how many students are still in the program, let alone which ones are successful,” said Taivna Mills, an International Services Assistant and one of the new coordinators for FWB. “We don’t really have solid information.”
In 2014, the administrators of FWB had so many domestic students interested that they had to turn some away, and they eventually matched about 40 pairs. After the kick-off event in the beginning of that fall semester, the administrators urged the students to spend time together at least once a month and to record each hangout with a selfie, which they could post later to the FWB Facebook page and earn points based on what type of activity they did. Eventually, the points would count toward prizes such as sports tickets and gift cards, which the administrators hoped the students would use toward their next meetings.
This points-incentives method is explained on flyers made in 2014 and were available in the International Programs office for interested students. Three years have passed, and the same flyers sit on the desks of Mills and Senior Advisor Kevin Roiseland, the new administrators for FWB. Mills said that administration of the program changes often, as people like Lee Seedorff, the original head of FWB, are promoted and leave FWB behind for the new directors to deal with. It has led to general disorganization of the program — for example, this year’s matches were not made until halfway through fall semester, as Mills was working in Mongolia and Roiseland was left to run FWB alone — and to shaky estimates of FWB’s participation and success rates. Roiseland said the points system is not really used anymore; instead, Roiseland and Mills match the pairs, have the kickoff event and then, more or less, hope for the best.
“Focusing on this kind of integration is not common on an institutional level,” Roiseland said. “More so, you’re kind of scrambling to just make sure the primary responsibilities of the university, like legal immigration and academic honesty, are being met. This is more a labor of love. Just icing on the cake.”
But for individual Chinese international students, this “icing” is more important than administrators may realize. According to a 2012 study from the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, more than one in three international students have no close American friends. This social gap, combined with general linguistic and cultural obstacles, can create a sense of isolation and lack of belonging in these Chinese students.
“I’ve been here four years, but I still do not understand American culture very well,” said Rancai Chen, a senior at Iowa from Wenzhou, a small city in southern China. “American friends would probably help me understand it, but I don’t really have any. Our cultures are so different, it’s hard to become friends naturally.”
Other Chinese international students feel like Chen, confused and isolated from American life. And although university administrators like Downing Thomas, the Dean of International Programs at Iowa, believe that social engagement is vital to a student’s success, FWB remains an underfunded side-project of the International Programs office.
“Friendship programs like this are necessary in that they enhance our students’ experiences,” Thomas said. “But if you strip down a college experience to its essentials, it’s getting good grades and a degree.”
This sentiment, this lack of urgency, at the administrative level manifests itself in FWB’s shortcomings. Although there is no guarantee that all participants in FWB will be as willing to put forth the effort to become friends as Hou and Noble, a push from the International Programs office stronger than a pizza party and encouragement from administrators could help their success. There are no plans to change the program at this time, and Mills and Roiseland said that they hope next year’s kickoff event will be earlier in the year and that the matches will be more successful.
A Chinese student in Iowa
A day in the life of Erin Hou, one half of an exceptionally successful Friends Without Borders pair.
On April 15, 2017, I spent the day with Erin and her partner in the FWB program. The first half of the day was typical of American college students: lunch with friends at a fusion restaurant off campus.
There was a clear cultural break halfway through the day. After Erin and I left Paige, Erin’s day was full of Chinese students and customs. She said that this juxtaposition of lifestyles is common in her life in Iowa City.