Friday, March 27, 2009

Matching cousins promotes friendship and understanding

International students don native clothing to celebrate cultural diversity at
the 2008 Eve of Nations event - Photo provided

Matching cousins promotes friendship and understanding

OU Cousins provides an opportunity for students to build friendships with people from a different culture by matching foreign exchange students with American students.

Many ‘cousins’ develop strong bonds and use the program to learn from each other, but some international students find it difficult to connect with their American matches.

“I don’t have close relation with my OU Cousins,” Mylene Marchat, a foreign exchange student from Clermont Ferrand, France said. “I know I have two, but I never meet them.”

The organization was created in 1996 by President and Mrs. David L. Boren as a result of a conversation they had with an international student during commencement exercises. The student expressed regret that he had never visited a working farm or ranch while in Oklahoma, according to the OU Cousins Web site.

“To make sure this never happened again and to enhance campus awareness of our rich international culture, the Cousins program was born,” staff advisor Quy Nguyen said.

The organization hosts frequent formal events to promote cultural exchange. Some of the activities include trips to ball games or local sites, artistic performances, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and an annual end-of-year barbecue at a local ranch.

“Students are encouraged to get together outside the program to study, shop and socialize as any normal friends might,” Nguyen said.

For Destiny Poole, a local student who was assigned an international student from China, this is where the real cultural exchange happens.

“You get to know your OU Cousin pretty well,” she said. “I was barely familiar with Chinese culture before.”

Poole, who is now an advisor for the program, said she tells people you get out of OU Cousins what you put into it.

“If you’re going out of your way to meet up with your cousin, not just for events and programs OU Cousins puts on, but outside-like hey let’s go to lunch, let’s go do this-that’s where the real connections are solidified,” she said.

Each year, the organization hosts a matching party where international students mingle with local student volunteers. The students have an option to be matched with someone they meet at the party, or they can sign up to be matched by the program’s organizers.

Nguyen said students are matched on a one-on-one basis according to major, common interests and other criteria.

For some international students these connections are important to functioning in American culture where public transportation is limited and very little is within walking distance.

“We just stay on campus sometimes,” Laure Noinski, a French exchange student said. “It would be nice to just go look around. To integrate with Americans-it’s not so easy.”

Noinski said she has exchanged emails with her assigned cousins, but due to scheduling conflicts they have not met in person.

Armin Streibel, an exchange student from Austria said he has not heard from his OU Cousin.

“I signed in but never got an answer,” he said.

Nguyen said American students who sign up are not obligated to devote a predetermined amount of time to the program.

“It is up to each pair to figure out how much time works out best for them,” he said. “If the OU Cousin is unable to meet their OU Cousin, we try our best to rematch them.
When the matches work, they can provide a valuable experience for both the exchange student and the American student.

Local student Mars Chapman was paired with an international student from Austria last semester.

“We hit it off quite well,” he said. “It gave me an opportunity to butcher German to him, and at the same time I helped correct his English.”

Chapman said he often just grabs a cup of coffee with his “cousin” and they talk about perceptions of each other’s countries.

That’s the best part of the program,” he said. “When you put yourself in another person’s shoes, you can empathize. On many occasions it has changed my perspective.”

Hear French foreign exchange student Mylene Marchat discuss the differences between Oklahoma and her native France.

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