UB's International Tea Time provides cultural haven for students

U.S. and international students come together to make new friends and feel at home

The door to 240 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 September 2013, the international student total reached a record-breaking 17 percent of UB’s student population.

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

“For U.S. students this is an opportunity to try snacks from different cultures and to make friends from around the world,” Yakunina said in an email. “For international students, this is a place to make new friends in a foreign country and to feel at home in the U.S.”

Every Wednesday is International Tea Time in Student Union 240. 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 to 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 to refer to when a problem emerged 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.”

Dan Beyer, a graduate Asian studies major, agrees. He said he’s thankful there’s a spot 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.

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

Although 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. Beyer said he’s happy the weekly meetings serve as a place to make connections with different students.

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.”

Surbhi Jindal, a graduate student in management information systems, feels the same.

“I have attended International Tea Time twice and I feel it’s a nice initiative as it offers a platform to people from diverse backgrounds to reach for new people,” Jindal said.

Yakunina sees International Tea Time as a place where students can feel that they are part of a “global community” by meeting students from different nations and cultures.

“Growth and learning happen both inside and outside of the classroom,” Yakunina said. “Also, growth and learning happen the best when students feel connected in an environment that respects and celebrates their identities. I hope that International Tea Time creates a warm and welcoming college experience, where different cultures are cherished and celebrated.”

Neill hopes to increase the diversity of students attending International Tea Time as well as to increase its exposure to the student body.

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.

Beyer appreciates the ease of International Tea Time – without any pressure of deadlines or grades, students can make friends in “an air of amicability.”

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.

“No one seems bothered that you’ve simply ‘jumped in’ [to a conversation], nor do you feel like you need a reason to talk to someone other than to make new friends and share a memorable time,” Beyer said.

From the moment you enter room 240 a sense of belonging fills the air for some students.

International Tea Time is held every Wednesday at 3 p.m. Students are encouraged to mingle, play games and enjoy food.

email: features@ubspectrum.com