Need a Pal? Try the IPALs!
Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate School
One of the most amazing things about UC is the diversity of our student body. Our university is a special kind of place where it is relatively easy to meet others from across the globe. While this aspect may be a significant draw for international and local students alike, domestic students may not think about all the unique challenges that our global Bearcats face. Adjusting to a new city, campus, academic program, and level of education is challenging enough, but on top of all these transitions, international students must also adjust to a new country, cultural system and sometimes linguistic differences as well. Luckily, UC International Services is a hub for international students to receive support adjusting to Cincinnati life, managing visa/immigration processes, and perhaps most importantly, building community.
UC International Partners and Leaders (IPALS) is a UC International Services program built to provide opportunities for all students to build relationships, orient themselves to the area, and explore all that the Greater Cincinnati region has to offer. IPALs volunteer student leaders receive training in supporting international students, organizing events, and facilitating social connections. These student leaders coordinate with UC International Services in setting up and staffing events, and the key to IPALs is consistency- events happen 2-4 times per month even throughout the summer!
Saugat Ghimire and Bharadwaj “Ben” Dogga, 5th and 4th year Aerospace Engineering PhD students respectively, are longtime enthusiastic IPAL student leaders. When I ask about their experiences in the program, they have no shortage of good things to say. “They’re a really, really good channel to bring all the students together and are instrumental in getting them acclimatized on the campus,” says Ben. Ben explains that while attending IPALs events was a key factor in navigating his own transition to the US and avoiding feelings of alienation and isolation, becoming an IPAL student leader has allowed him to grow as a leader and English speaker. “Mentors within the IPALs, they force us, you know, in a very subtle way to go ahead and explore the areas of speaking or leadership skills that we as international students lack when coming to a new space. But coming here and leading teams of international students and helping them through events is what developed my speaking abilities and my expression of speech.”
Saugat agrees, stating that the IPALs program has been instrumental in helping him find and build community, both amongst his fellow Nepalese students and others from around the world. “Being from a small country like Nepal, when I came to the U.S., the first thing I realized was how diverse the world is and how diverse overall the United States is. And I thought it would be good to be a part of an organization which encapsulates [this diversity] […] and then I can share about my country or my experiences over there and get to know about people from different parts of the world.”
The IPALs host a frankly impressive quantity and diversity of events, ranging from small local excursions like an upcoming outing to Oktoberfest Zinzinnati to larger overnight trips such as last semester’s snow tubing and cabin adventure at Perfect North Slopes in Indiana. Outings are geared to introduce attendees to American cultural experiences and adventures at a low cost and without the stress of having to plan. Since events happen regularly and IPAL volunteer student leaders are required to attend a certain number of events per semester, familiar faces are all but guaranteed, and many friendships have been forged through these events. “Once you get involved, you make a lot of friends within the IPALs,” says Ben confidently. Attendees consist of a mix of both graduate and undergraduate students, and all are welcome, even students native to the U.S. Ben points out that for many attendees, IPALs events also serve as a kind of testing grounds for students adjusting to social interaction in the United States; “You can minimize the culture shock that you’ll experience because you get to interact with students in a protected and a controlled environment, and that way you can figure out what works and what does not,” he explains. Beyond the social fun, some events include a helpful educational component; for example, last semester’s retreat included breakout sessions on topics such as taking care of mental health and physical health and avoiding scams as an international student. Basically, the IPALs program is all about equipping students with the tools that they need to survive and thrive, whether those tools are logistical knowledge or a network of supportive friends.
Although adventures like zooming down snowy hills in tubes are certainly memorable, the IPALs are also experts in helping students to find their footing. Ben and Saugat recall the aspects of Cincinnati life that they struggled to adjust to when first arriving on campus. “In Nepal, when you’re applying to housing you go to places and ask if it is vacant and just fix it on the spot. But here, it’s a completely different process, and I wasn’t aware of that. So when I got here, I had to crash at my friend’s place for 15 days before I got an apartment,” Saugat recalls, laughing. Ben mentions difficulties navigating grocery shopping, public transportation, and even aspects of mundane daily life such as chores. “What’s the deal with laundry and quarters?” he says with a laugh. They both mention parts of environment and culture that took them by surprise, such as the cold, Midwestern politeness, and paying with credit cards. All these little differences can add up to an overwhelming feeling of being out of place, of culture shock. Luckily, the IPALs exist to reassure students that they are not alone.
Both Ben and Saugat agree that UC International and IPALs were a lifeline in finding their footing quickly; as graduate students thrown right into a rigorous program, there simply wasn’t much time to waste. Saugat points out that many graduate international students only spend 1-2 years at UC as opposed to undergraduates who get more time to adjust gradually to the U.S. educational and professional landscape with more structured support such as orientation, learning communities, and compulsory internships. Ben agrees. “Don’t waste your time exploring things on your own unless you know specifically what you're looking for,” he advises. “These are very trivial things and there is someone that has done it a year before, so especially when you're on a such a short time span […] outsource it to the IPALs or other volunteers on campus. Don’t waste your time rediscovering the wheel, just come to one of our events, make connections, and go from there.” To address this need to communicate resources, Ben and other IPALs piloted an initiative called the IPALs Scout Map, a regularly updated Google Map comprising of extensive recommendations and routes and markers for transportation, campus buildings, banks/ATMs, grocery stores, restaurants, Zip Car locations, and more. UC International also provides extensive support in helping students navigate visa processes, hosting occasional workshops as well as weekly virtual drop-in hours every Thursday at 3 PM to answer any questions. With all of these resources, international students can feel reassured that they are not alone in navigating the bureaucracy of immigration nor adjusting to a novel environment, both logistically and socially.
Become an IPAL Volunteer Student Leader!
IPALs events are open to all, but for those who would like to become more involved and take on a leadership role, UC International recruits new IPAL leaders on a semesterly basis through multiple recruitment events. Interested students are encouraged to attend and receive more information. Alternatively, students can fill out this interest form to get connected and UC International will contact them during recruitment. Click here for more information about requirements and benefits of becoming an IPAL student leader.