Flags from nations around the world hanging in the air, brightly lit by natural light from a window

UMBC international students build community online during COVID-19

A young woman stands outside learning on a metal rail next to a body of water with buildings behind her. She is wearing a dark grey winter jacket with a red hat.
Kirthana Kolekar.
Photo courtesy of Kolekar.

Graduate student Kirthana Kolekar began volunteering as one of UMBC’s first Global Ambassadors in summer 2020. It was a time of incredible stress. COVID-19 made personal connections challenging, federal policies for international students were in limbo, 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. Kolekar’s mother 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 felt supported by her UMBC community. Faculty, classmates, and fellow ambassadors reached out to offer support, as she had reached out to others before. 

Kolekar ‘21, information systems, says, “They kept asking: ‘How are you doing? Do you need any help?’” And that mentality—proactively being present for a person half-way around the world—is what the Global Ambassador Peer Mentor Program is all about.

Year of rapid growth

UMBC’s Global Ambassador Program began with a few volunteers connecting with fellow students online. In less than a year, it has quickly grown into a fully-fledged, paid leadership opportunity for UMBC international students living in Baltimore to connect with peers around the globe.

Ambassadors provide peer support that transcends borders. They host panels, facilitate webchats, lead presentations, conduct workshops, and guide newly enrolled students, all online. And when, as COVID-19 recedes, more new international students can physically come to campus, they look forward to welcoming them in person.

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

‘They are new, just like I was’

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

Even in a typical year, international students face distinct challenges adjusting to campus life. “Everything was completely different,” says Nastaran Azar, a junior biology major and Global Ambassador, recalling her first semester.

Daily assignments and regular tests at UMBC were a shift from the semesterly exams in Azar’s native Iran. Outside the classroom, she had to navigate getting an apartment, a job, and a driver’s license. 

Azar had two older brothers already living in Baltimore, but she realizes other students often don’t have such connections. “They are new, just like I was—uncomfortable and feeling like they don’t know how to do anything. I hope I can help them all to be comfortable and find friends,” she says. 

A young man with short cropped hair wearing black rimmed glasses and a checkered corral and blue shirt.
Dmitry Pankratov. Photo courtesy of Pankratov.

Ambassador Dmitry Pankratov recalls how jarring it felt to move from Moscow to Maryland five years ago—and that was without COVID-19 closures. “I understand how awful it can be when you have just come to a new place, and you don’t have anyone around,” the data science master’s student says.

Incoming international students have a litany of questions for ambassadors—everything from how to file taxes to where to buy their favorite foods. “What kind of masalas, what are the ranges in prices, what spices do you need to bring from your home country,” Kolekar lists off, before the self-described foodie adds: “The taste slightly differs!”

Given the global pandemic, ordinary challenges quickly become complex. With that reality, receiving outreach has proven instrumental in connecting international students with university life. 

Building relationships

The Global Ambassador Program has found ways to foster community as students study remotely. Many of the ambassadors lead webinars teaching students how to continue engaging in university life. One will focus on the university’s award-winning Bollywood fusion dance team, Adaa. Others spotlight UMBC resources, such as virtual gaming options accessible now and the Gameroom available for students when they eventually come to campus. 

Pankratov has spoken about UMBC’s chess club at past events. He plans to deliver a session about the running club next. He’ll focus on the best trails in Maryland and how UMBC students can keep each other motivated while exercising safely outdoors. 

“We have special training and people who can guide you, because when you’re just starting, it’s very hard to understand your own physical limitations,” Pankratov says. “It’s team building. You talk with people, get acquainted. Even with COVID-19, you can share your pace and time with others.”

Expanding horizons

UMBC already has a global feel, with international students making up nearly eight percent of the overall student body and a quarter of graduate students. The Global Ambassadors Program enables international students to benefit from connecting with fellow UMBC students from around the globe even if they can’t say hello to each other on Academic Row. 

Three young adults smile at camera, holding pennants that read UMBC Retrievers
Students at the Center for Global Engagement 2019 international student orientation. Photo by Marlayna Demond.

Students build trust with one other in the program, Azar says, helping them form homes away from home. They also come to understand themselves and the world in new ways. Kolekar, an aspiring business analyst, says making friends with a diverse set of viewpoints is reframing how she’ll approach her career.

Pankratov marvels at how he has met students from all across the globe, from India and China to Ecuador. “We all have different schools of thought, of literature, and so it just enlightens,” he says. “With this program, I can make friends with people who I never knew existed before.”

Banner image: Flags of the world in the UMBC Commons. Photo by Marlaynd Demond ’11 for UMBC.

Article written by Nick Ford for UMBC News.