Students bring international flair to residence halls

Kelley Stoklosa

Bo Zhao and Jelena Hotic don’t have much in common. But Zhao, a freshman financial mathematics major from China, and Hotic, a junior political science major who moved to the United States from Serbia at age 6, have plenty to talk about when they meet for lunch each week.

The unlikely pair were introduced through Koonce International Mentorship a few months ago and have since become great friends. Koonce International Mentorship was created by Resident Hall Director Eron Memaj in an effort to help international students become more familiar with American culture and for domestic students to learn about the many different cultures of their classmates. Memaj experienced the challenges of an international student when he came from Albania to the United States.

“It’s not easy with no family, no culture, you can’t communicate well, and on top of all of that, study,” he said.

The group pairs a domestic student with an international student to meet at least once a week. During their meetings, pairs exchange stories about their respective cultures, help each other with problems and international students have the opportunity to practice their English-speaking skills.

Koonce International Mentorship also hosts group activities several times a month. Activities are meant to educate and entertain members and have either an international or American focus. Events include international movie nights, dinners at Ray’s in downtown Kent and sporting events. In the fall, Koonce International Mentorship participated in the Homecoming parade. Many international students had never experienced the uniquely American celebration. The group was very proud to have won best float in the residence hall category.

The group tries to take advantage of any potential learning opportunity to help international students become better adjusted. Simple things like using Facebook can help with English and keeping in touch with mentors.

“I post weekly events on our Facebook page so everyone can invite their friends. It’s been a good tool,” said Chrissy Francisco, director of public relations.

Memaj and Carrie Circosta, president of Koonce International Mentorship, see how international and domestic students have grown through the program since it’s start in Fall 2009. Circosta finds it incredibly rewarding to help students break down barriers, she said.

Ali Kapucu, junior computer technology major, recalled how overwhelmed he was during a volleyball game shortly after arriving from Turkey. Kapucu had very little experience speaking English and was worried about how people would respond to him. Memaj and Circosta encouraged Kapucu to join Koonce International Mentorship and Kent Interhall Council, which he said has helped make him more comfortable in his new environment. Kapucu now holds leadership roles in both groups and is making new friends all the time.

Despite it’s name, Koonce International Mentorship is open to students on and off campus. The group wanted a name that would “relate ourselves after people doing good things,” Memaj said. Koonce International Mentorship felt appropriate because Koonce Hall is the only building on campus named after a student, Judy Koonce, who died saving a life. Memaj finds inspiration from the picture of Judy Koonce hanging outside his office in Koonce Hall.

Recently, the group has hosted Turkey and Chinese nights, which has helped draw in more students. The nights, which focused on Turkish and Chinese culture through food, entertainment and history, drew 250 people. There are more than 57 members in the group.

Circosta said they are happy to see so many students signing up to be either a mentor or mentee. Koonce International Mentorship would never turn someone away, Memaj added.

“We are inclusive of everyone. We are all international here,” Memaj said.

Contact features correspondent Kelley Stoklosa

at [email protected].