Global Connections builds bridge between international students, community

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Melike Faiz’s first month in the United States was a major challenge.

She had no friends, her grasp of English was shaky and she was taken aback by the contrast between State College and her bustling home, the Turkish capital of Ankara.

“I said this ‘Is this the USA, really? It's really small, what can I do here?” the visiting doctoral scholar recalled.

But soon, Faiz would find a path to cultural understanding that started at 427 Boucke Building, the home of Global Connections and its myriad programs for international visitors. Through Global Connections, Faiz joined a book club, found English language courses and broadened her cultural understanding.

Melike Faiz

Melike Faiz is a visiting doctoral scholar from Turkey. 

Image: Bill Zimmerman

She no longer struggles to find things to do. She has friends from the United States, Peru, South Korea and beyond. Her English is improving, and once she discovered the wealth of information at University Park, she didn’t doubt her decision to study social studies education in central Pennsylvania.

Since the 1960s, Global Connections has recognized the value of connecting international visitors with the community. Originally called the International Hospitality Counsel, Global Connections is a nonprofit affiliate of Penn State, cooperating with the University’s Global Programs office while working independently within the community. The organization receives a significant portion of its funding from Centre County United Way. Services are available for University Park’s international student population -- 7,329 in fall 2013 -- and any other international visitors living in the area. In recent weeks, Global Connections supported Global Programs’ International Student Orientation with activities like walking tours of downtown State College, a welcoming reception at the Hintz Alumni Center and a resource table at the HUB-Robeson Center.

“The international community is going to continue to grow. When they feel included and part of the community, they’re able to meet friends and increase self confidence. That helps them, that helps the family, ultimately it helps Penn State."

-- Marc McCann, executive director

Marc McCann

Executive Director Marc McCann said Global Connections is a bridge between Penn State and the community. 

Image: Bill Zimmerman

Global Connections’ chief programs connect foreigners with volunteers who are native English speakers. The Conversation Partners program facilitates group and one-on-one meetings focused on improving language skills while the International Friendship program is geared toward increasing cultural understanding. Both programs have waiting lists. Global Connections’ most popular programs reach hundreds. In 2013, the Tax Assistance Program helped 795 people from 53 countries, Conversation Partners served 612 and 396 participated in English as a Second Language classes.

Other activities include the International Speaker Series, which gives foreign visitors the chance to discuss their culture in local schools and other community venues; the annual International Children’s Festival in the spring; and Passport on a Plate, a fundraiser that connects different cultures through food.  

Penn State’s globally focused programs were welcomed when Svitlana Iarmolenko came to study for her doctorate in recreation, park and tourism management after earning a master’s degree at a southern university with a small international population.

“I came to Penn State and thought to myself ‘There’s all these international students and they gave us an international student orientation. How is that possible? And there’s Global Connections and the office of Global Programs. There’s a whole office taking care of us. What?’ It was such a huge change,” she said.

Born in Ukraine, Iarmolenko graduated this month and is now an assistant professor of recreation and tourism at Georgia Southern University. At Penn State she was paired up with a Conversation Partner and joined the Global Connection’s Women’s Intercultural Book Group, but soon started giving more of her time to helping others. She spoke about Ukrainian culture to elementary and middle schoolers, guided youngsters at a transitional housing facility in creating decorative Ukrainian Easter eggs called pysankas and cooked a Ukrainian dinner for residents at the Village at Penn State senior community.

As a doctoral student, Iarmolenko said she received persistent feedback on what she needed to improve. While volunteering with Global Connections, she knew she was doing something right.

“Volunteering, contributing and helping other people just really helped me sort of step away from those experiences and realize ‘You know what, I’m a valuable member of this society. I made these kids happy today.’”

Shortly after arriving at Penn State from India in 2013, Chitralekha Beniwal took a tour of downtown State College, guided by Global Connections volunteers. It wasn’t long before the master’s student in industrial engineering was taking others on a journey through Indian culture at events like the children's festival.

“We grad students get so engrossed in our academics that we barely socialize with new people or keep ourselves involved in fun activities,” Beniwal said. “GC happened to be a good respite for me where I showed my cooking skills, mehndi (skin painting) skills and represented my country at different events. Nonetheless, I got to know about the cultures and trends of other countries too; (it was) a candid exposure.”

Alireza Ostadhossein, an Iranian doctoral student, gained friendship and confidence through the Conversation Partners program. Talking with his five-member group, Ostadhossein said, made him more comfortable when it came time to face larger audiences at conferences in his field of study, engineering science and mechanics.

“Global Connections makes a very friendly atmosphere if you want to prepare yourself for being in a social group,” Ostadhossein said.

According to Executive Director Marc McCann, Global Connections is a bridge between Penn State and the community with potential to build empathy and end stereotypes on an increasingly “shrinking planet.”

“The international community is going to continue to grow,” he said. “When they feel included and part of the community, they’re able to meet friends and increase self confidence. That helps them, that helps the family, ultimately it helps Penn State. They’re going to go back home and tell people, ‘I went to Penn State and this was our experience.’”

McCann started in April, replacing Merrill David, who stepped down after leading the program for a decade. McCann, who earned a master’s degree in history from Penn State, and has taught in the College of Health and Human Development, previously worked at Arrow Child & Family Ministries in State College.

In his new role, McCann wants to increase Global Connections’ profile, adding volunteers, increasing donations and growing the list of community partnerships that currently includes the likes of the American Association of University Women and the Centre County Women's Resource Center.

A volunteer in the Conversation Partners and International Friendship programs, McCann along with his wife, Denise, recently invited a couple from Iran to their son’s Little League game. It was the first glimpse of a baseball game for the husband and wife, both visiting scholars at Penn State.

“To have this vehicle to do that is powerful,” McCann said. “They took pictures, they’re posted on Facebook, it was really meaningful.”

To register for Global Connection programs or to become a volunteer, complete the registration form at www.surveymonkey.com/s/gcregister.

To view Global Connections’ blog, go to http://gc-cc.blogspot.com/.

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Last Updated August 28, 2014