Steeped in culture

International Tea Time provides cultural haven for students


The door to 220 Student Union is covered in stripes and colorful rainbows. It’s the entryway for students to gather each week surrounded by an array of food, games and, most importantly, support.

The other side of the door offers feelings of belonging for some of UB’s most diverse students on campus: International students. There were about 5,800 international students at UB last year, according to the UB admissions website. In Sept. 2013, the international student total reached a record-breaking 17 percent.

Coming to a new country is difficult. Some international students feel intimidated by their new surroundings. That why Elena Yakunina, a psychologist at UB, created International Tea Time.

“[We] are bridging the gaps between the different cultures and helping students feel like they belong,” she said.

Every Wednesday is International Tea Time in Student Union 220. The service is provided by UB’s counseling services as a way to bring students together to connect and make friends. Yakunina started the group to decrease the loneliness many foreign students experience upon first arriving at UB.

She is a former international student and said she understands the feeling of being lost when arriving to an entirely different culture. By creating connections with other international students, Yakunina felt safe and knew she had someone when a problem emerged that she could not face on her own.

“My hope is to create that kind of experience for the students who come here,” Yakunina said. “[So they] know they have friends who care about them and support them and that it is a home and family to them.”

Thomas Neill, a clinical social worker at UB, said the goal behind the weekly Tea Time is to “find a platform for international students to have a regular and consistent space where they can meet, mingle and support each other.”

He encourages American students to take part in International Tea Time because it provides an opportunity for intercultural mingling and learning and it’s a place to make new friends.

While increasing diversity and increasing exposure are among Neill’s goals, he also said it’s not always about learning something, as much as it is about making friends and sharing experiences with one another.

Michael Ghattaz, a senior civil engineering major and frequent attendant of International Tea Time, said the meetings are a “great way to take a break from school and to socialize with new people.”

Dan Beyer, a graduate Asian studies major, agrees. He is thankful there is a place that serves as a place to connect with different individuals.

“Having been an international student, I know how tough it is sometimes to connect because you have your dorm and you don’t know anyone and it’s like, ‘Where do I go to meet people,’” he said.

These meetings allow flexibility to those students who are too busy to join any clubs that have deadlines and schedules. There are no agendas at these meetings; it is not a club, nor is there an obligation to come every week.

Yakunina said the flexibility of International Tea Time allows her to see many new faces and frequenters every Wednesday.

Inside the meetings, students are excited to see one another and relax. The constant smiles and greetings toward one another contrast the brief and rushed hallway exchanges students often take part in.

International Tea Time is held every Wednesday from 3 p.m. until 4:20 p.m. Students are encouraged to mingle, play games and enjoy food with new people.