HCA group pairs exchange students with mentors

Lauren Carlton

International and exchange students facing the daunting culture shock of life in the United States and in the subculture of the University don’t have to do it alone, thanks to an Honors College Assembly initiative.

First Friends, an organization under the HCA’s Cultural Experiences branch, pairs foreign students at the University with volunteer American students to foster cultural acceptance through mentoring and friendships.

Most of the American students have strong foreign language skills, although the pairs primarily speak English for the sake of practice.

“Here, we are all UA students, no matter where we come from. That’s what we emphasize,” said Kaycee McFalls, a senior majoring in international studies and French.

McFalls is one of the co-directors of Alabama’s First Friends and spent last semester studying abroad in France.

First Friends’ other co-director Ellen Levet is a senior majoring in German and management with a specialization in global business. Levet has been involved with First Friends since her sophomore year. Like McFalls, she studied abroad last year and took advantage of her German university’s “First Friend” program.

“After I went abroad this past year, I finally got to see what it was like to be an exchange student myself,” Levet said. “At my university in Germany, I was paired with a buddy, and he helped me out very much. If I had opted out of having a buddy in Germany, I think my experience would have been much different.”

First Friends are required to spend at least eight hours with their “buddies” each semester, but most go above the set requirement. Spending time together is facilitated by ready-made events planned by the directors.

The group plans to visit Moundville Archaeological Park and Kentuck Art Center in addition to hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for the exchange students.

Teresa Portone, a senior majoring in mathematics and minoring in studio art and Italian, said she enjoys participating in First Friends.

“I studied abroad and have always been interested in people from other parts of the world,” Portone said. “I wanted to be able to talk to people from other countries who had the same wanderlust as I did, and I wanted to be able to help them to adjust to their new country, like others helped me.”

In addition to the process of adjusting to a new place, First Friends seeks to build real friendships. Although the kick-off event for this year was held only last Wednesday, Sept. 12, at Mellow Mushroom, Portone said that some pairs have already become good friends.

“It went really well,” McFalls said, in regards to the kick-off event. “We almost had to kick people out of Mellow Mushroom.”

The Honors College Assembly accepts applications in both the spring and fall for prospective First Friends. While having a strong background in a foreign language is helpful, it’s not required since a number of incoming exchange students are looking to practice their English.

McFalls said the program focuses on how being “friends” is about more than first impressions and language skills.

“It’s about fostering a deeper intercultural understanding,” she said.