AUBURN – It is no secret that there is a close bond between Auburn University and the Auburn community. Now there is a chance for a group of students who might otherwise feel like outsiders to really be a part of that community.
On the Saturday of the first away game of the football season, 12 international graduate students went kayaking on the Coosa River in Wetumpka with Kevan Bizilia, owner of Bizilia’s Café on College Street in Auburn. He led the expedition which also included five other Auburn community members.
The opportunity for this diverse group to enjoy some of Alabama’s natural scenery came through a new program being developed by the Graduate School, called Interconnect.
Interconnect lets community members host or lead groups of international students on various recreational or cultural trips. It gives locals a chance to mingle with students from an array of different cultures, and gives students an unprecedented chance to really experience American culture-especially the great Alabama outdoors.
Qianyun Gong, who goes by Melanie, says that she signed up in order to experience American life and relax. It was her first ever experience kayaking, as it was for most of the attendees. “Everyone helps each other, and the friendly atmosphere makes me feel very comfortable,” she said.
Without local networks and contacts, many international students would never be able to navigate the waters of organizing this kind of trip alone. Yi Sun, another student who attended, said, “I like outdoor activities a lot, but it is very difficult for international student to go out by themselves, because [of] limited resources, concern about safety and transportation issues. That’s why I was so excited about these events… I felt safe with experienced kayakers around.”
The trip was a roaring success – even falling out of the boat was a bonding experience. Andrew Zhang noted, “People helped each other when somebody fell into water, that strengthened our friendships.”
Zhang added that sharing their meals with each other after kayaking was also special. “I tasted different foods from different countries, like Indian foods, Chinese foods and Iran[ian] foods. That is wonderful. This will be my life-long memory,” he said.
The program grew out of a colloquium for international students that was jointly hosted by the Graduate Student Council and the Graduate School on recreational activities in Alabama. This quickly blossomed into more, beginning with an outing to Callaway Gardens. Len Vining, special projects coordinator at the Graduate School, capitalized on the interest of international students in these activities, and what began as a few quickly planned trips became the seed for something bigger.
In the past few months, groups of students have gone hiking at Tuskegee National Forest, sightseeing at Callaway Gardens, picnicking at Lake Martin and fishing at three local lakes. The schedule for this semester is falling into place, with tailgating and more fishing, hiking and other trips planned. A web interface is in the works where community members or groups will be able to post an event they want to host, and students can sign up for whichever they like.
Bizilia feels like it is just another way to show Southern hospitality to guests in our country. Perhaps that is yet another way to define “good citizenship.”
More information about the Interconnect program is available by contacting Vining at firstname.lastname@example.org. A video segment and photographs are available on the Auburn University Office of Communications and Marketing website, http://ocm.auburn.edu/featured_story/interconnect.html.
(Written by Jessica Nelson.)