If you read my list about how to tackle post study-abroad depression, you’ll know one of my suggestions was to put your experience abroad to good use rather than wearing out your friends with your endless stories. There are a number of ways to do that: becoming a study-abroad mentor, writing about your experience for a blog, or being a part of the International Peer Associate League (that’s IPAL to you and me). Or do all three, like me. Because, if can’t you tell, I’m still trying to get over returning to Glenside after four months of Seoul adventuring.
To me, being an IPAL is the civic duty of the study-abroad returnee. Remember when you were abroad (or if you haven’t gone yet, you will experience this) and there was that local who truly took care of you and made sure you didn’t go to the wrong side of town at the wrong time? Who invited you over on national holidays to enjoy with his or her family? Who filled you in on all the current curse words and slang, the ones you didn’t see online? Whether designated to you by your host school or a product of natural friendship, that person helped to shape your experience, right? Now imagine an international student coming to America for the first time. Nothing like a barrage of fast-talkin’ Americans, screaming at them (just accept the fact that we’re loud, it’s true), with funny accents, in a language they may or may not understand. That’s overwhelming enough and then there’s coming here and facing too many options of food and finding your way in new cities. IPALs aim to be that local who was a friend and lifesaver.
IPALs are a group of students operating out of the Office of International Affairs (OIA) who’ve been chosen to help incoming international students adapt to American life. Our duties might be going with international students to Walmart to buy pillows and blankets, taking them for their first meal in America (a steaming hot chicken parm with spaghetti from Michael’s at 2 a.m. warms the stomach and the soul), or even being the first person they meet when they arrive at the airport (less exciting when you’re meeting someone hobbling off of an eight-hour-plus flight). IPALs try to ease that early adjustment as best we can. And, yes, IPALS have been known to be waiting and waiting, without notice, at the airport for someone whose flight has been cancelled. But remember, someone would do it for you in your host country.
I’ve gone on my fair share of IPAL-related outings since I signed up the second semester of my freshman year, but my favorite times have been the past two summers serving as a live-in counselor to Chinese high school students visiting the States. Anyone who’s done camp counseling knows how tiring it can get, managing a herd of pubescent teens, but I think this is way different. These kids are usually near the end of their U.S. tour, having been to New York and Washington, D.C., but we are their first real face-to-face associations with Americans. Some students are shy at first, yet eager to test out their English. But after a week of sun-up to sun-down activities with them, we end up WeChat and QQ messenger friends building the start of long-lasting relationships.
“But why should I?” you ask, wary of taking on too many responsibilities. Here’s some food for thought. You will form life-long friendships with people you’ve met from around the world through this program. You will have access to some awesome people who work at the OIA (not just saying that because I work there, I swear). And you will be participating in very honorable volunteer service. Still not convinced? How about real food for thought, as in free food? A number of IPAL and international-student events on- and off-campus that are sponsored by the OIA—such as trips to Philly and Longwood Gardens, and a Thanksgiving dinner—usually come with a meal or two.
But more seriously, I can say without a doubt that being an IPAL has shaped my experience at Arcadia in ways I wouldn’t get otherwise. I’ve seen things in new light: I remember freshman year, going to New York with students during the New Year’s holiday and watching fireworks in Brooklyn (in the bitter cold). Philadelphia has grown in my eyes over the past couple years from a city of cheesesteaks and concerts to so much more. I’ve gotten to go places and do things I would never have done without the program (if you see me around campus, ask me about the time I had 30 minutes to make it from JFK to Manhattan, locate and make the last train out of the city after dropping a group off there). Through working with international students, I have learned to to enjoy all things as if I’m experiencing them for the first time. I’m sure my Peace Buddy at Ewha (IPAL equivalent at my host university in Korea) did things with us that she’d done many times before, but she still shared experiences with enthusiasm and excitement for us, which I appreciate, a lot.
This post truly doesn’t do justice to how rewarding it is to be an IPAL. I’ve met so many great people, friends I plan on keeping for a long time.
Getting hooked? I suggest you go to the Office of International Affairs and ask for information—chances are you’ll see me there.