Before coming to App State, Japanese exchange student Natsumi Mori was nervous about making American friends.
Through iPals, the sophomore sustainable development major was paired with sophomore interdisciplinary studies major Kara Haselton, and a friendship quickly formed.
“I could learn about American culture from her, and she also asked me about my Japanese culture a lot,” Mori said. “I’m really grateful for the program that gave me the chance to get to know my iPal.”
iPals pairs an international student with an American App State student to learn about each other’s backgrounds.
“It is a cultural exchange,” said Mary Ann Sartori, president of iPals and sophomore marketing major. “You get to learn something about their culture, and they get to learn about American culture.”
iPals participants get together once a month for a meet-up.
“We have a really big meeting together where we all go on a hike, or go get ice cream, or go to a football game,” Sartori said. “We do not have weekly meetings, we just say, ‘This week, go ask your pal for lunch or study together.’”
Haselton joined iPals after her internship in Taiwan over the summer.
“I was there by myself, and I got a small sense of what it is like to be in a country where you do not speak the language very well, where you don’t know anyone and so you’re having to rely on other people,” Haselton said. “I’ve seen how amazing it feels when people are like, ‘Oh, I care about you, I want to help you get around,’ and I wanted to be that person for other people.”
Mori and Haselton were paired in the fall and shared stories about their families and favorite food.
Haselton said she remembers asking Mori if she liked hot chocolate, only to find out she had never had it before.
“We got hot chocolate, and she loved it, and she drank hot chocolate so much for the rest of the semester,” Haselton said. “It was small things like that, things that are very normal for us that aren’t normal for other people and seeing how much joy it brings them.”
Sartori said it is important for international students to have an American point of contact while at App State.
“For example, in some countries, tipping is not a thing. So, say they are having lunch together and they ask, ‘What is this about?’ You can explain to them and they have a point of reference,” Sartori said.
Mori’s favorite experience with her iPal was spending Thanksgiving with Haselton’s family.
“For me, I don’t have Thanksgiving in Japan, so that was really new and wonderful,” Mori said. “I got to know more about American Thanksgiving, like (different) food and games.”
Haselton said she wants to make international students feel as comfortable as they can during their time at App State.
“It can be so isolating to be somewhere where you don’t know anyone,” Haselton said. “That is why iPals is important, so us American students can have an understanding of what (international students) are going through, and help welcome them and make them feel that they belong here.”
Sartori encourages domestic students to apply for iPals so they can have a broader worldview.
“I encourage it for people who are learning a language or interested in a culture,” Sartori said. “I encourage people to learn about other cultures because we do have them on campus.”