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UMBC International students build the online community during COVID-19

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A young woman stands outside learning on a metal railroad near a waterfront with buildings behind her.  She is wearing a dark gray winter jacket with a red hat.
Kirthana Kolekar.
Photo courtesy of Kolekar.

Graduate student Kirthana Kolekar started volunteering as one of the first UMBCs Global Ambassadors in the summer of 2020. It was a time of incredible stress. COVID-19 made personal connections challenging, federal policies for international students were forgotten, and her family was thousands of miles away in India. But serving as a resource for UMBC international students living abroad helped her feel a strong sense of purpose.

Then, in the fall, everything changed. Mother Kolekars suddenly passed away from COVID-19 and she flew from Baltimore to Bidar, India, to be with her family. Through it all, she says, she feels supported by her UMBC community. Faculty, classmates, and fellow ambassadors approached to offer support, as she had reached out to others before.

Colleague 21, information systems, says, They kept asking: How are you doing? Do you need help? And this mentality is actively present for a person halfway around the world is what has to do with the Global Ambassador Peer Mentor Program.

Year of rapid growth

The UMBCs Ambassador Global Program started with some volunteers connecting with other students online. In less than a year, he has quickly become a full-time leadership opportunity, paid for leadership for UMBC international students living in Baltimore to connect with his colleagues across the globe.

Ambassadors offer the support of colleagues across borders. They organize panels, facilitate online conversations, conduct presentations, hold workshops, and direct newly enrolled students, all online. And when, as COVID-19 withdraws, more new international students can physically come to campus, they expect to receive them in person.

“The mission of the Ambassador Program is to ensure that you feel connected to your colleagues as soon as you become part of the UMBC community,” he says. Natalie Lobb, a UMBC international student support specialist who oversees day-to-day operations programs. Importers It is important to know that you are never alone, that you always have someone you can count on.

They are young, just like me

A young woman with long black hair wears a gray sweater to the camera smiles with a wall of pink and white flowers.
Nastaran Azar. Photo courtesy of Azar.

Even in a typical year, international students face special challenges by adapting to life on campus. Everything was completely different, he says Azar nastaran, a small degree in biology and Global Ambassador, recalling her first semester.

Daily assignments and regular tests at UMBC were a change from the semester exams at Azars Iran. Outside of class, she had to navigate to get an apartment, a job and a driver’s license.

Azar had two older brothers who already lived in Baltimore, but she realizes that other students often do not have such connections. They are young, just as I was not at ease and felt like they knew nothing to do. I hope I can help everyone stay calm and make friends, she says.

A young boy with short short hair, wearing black glasses and a blue shirt with cracks.
Dmitri Pankratov. Photo courtesy of Pankratov.

Ambassador Dmitri Pankratov recalls how bitter it felt to move from Moscow to Maryland five years ago and that was without closing COVID-19. I understand how horrible it can be when you have just come to a new place and you have no one around, says the master of data science student.

Prospective international students have a host of questions for ambassadors everything from how to impose taxes to where to buy their favorite foods. What kind of masala, what are the price ranges, what spices do you need to bring from your country, Kolekar orders, before the self-described nutritionist adds: The taste changes a little!

Given the global pandemic, common challenges quickly become complex. With this reality, fieldwork has proven to play an important role in connecting international students with university life.

Building relationships

The Global Ambassador program has found ways to foster community while students study remotely. Many ambassadors run webinars that teach students how to continue to engage in college life. One will focus on Bollywood fusion dance team Adaa, the award-winning university. Others note UMBC resources, such as the virtual gaming options now available, and spaces available to students when they finally arrive on campus.

Pankratov has spoken about the UMBC chess club in past events. He plans to hold a session regarding the other club. Hell focuses on the best trails in Maryland and how UMBC students can keep each other motivated during safe outdoor exercises.

We have special training and people who can guide you, because once you start, it is very difficult to understand your physical limitations, says Pankratov. Build her team. You talk to people, get to know each other. Even with COVID-19, you can share your pace and time with others.

Expanding horizons

UMBC already has a global sensation, with international students making up nearly eight percent of the total student body and a quarter of graduate students. The Global Ambassadors Program enables international students to benefit from connecting with other UMBC students from around the world even if they cannot greet each other on the Academic Line.

Three young teenagers smiling at the camera, holding markers reading UMBC Retrievers
Students at the Center for Global Engagement 2019 international student orientation. Photo by Marlayna Demond.

Students build trust with each other in the program, Azar says, helping them form homes away from home. They also understand themselves and the world in new ways. Kolekar, an aspiring business analyst, says making friends with a different set of views is reshaping the way shell approaches her career.

Pankratov marvels at the way he has met students from all over the world, from India and China to Ecuador. We all have different schools of thought, literature and so it just shines, he says. With this program, I can make friends with people I never knew existed before.

Banner Image: Flags of the World at UMBC Commons. Photo by Marlaynd Demond ’11 for UMBC.

Article written by Nick Ford for UMBC News.

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