“It was a pretty hard my first semester,” Avila saId. “Right before coming back, I cried to my mom and she cried, and she told me she wasn’t sure about sending me over there, and if she was doing right by me to expand my horizons. And I told her it’s going to be okay. That next semester, I became a part of IBB.”
International Buccaneer Buddies is an organization that connects current ETSU undergraduate and graduate students with exchange students to guide them around Johnson City. Around seven years ago, Brent Morrow, now a retired counseling professor, began the program.
“I saw a need to connect international students better with American students and with each other,” Morrow said. “Just recently, we’ve been brought under the umbrella of the Multicultural Center. We have an office now, so we can do more programming for the international students.”
The buddy program pairs an international student with an ETSU student to help them on campus and create a friendship. There is a host program related to IBB called the International Friendship Program that Morrow started in 2006.
“With the host program, we recruit families, who either work at the university or in the community,” Morrow said. “When the student arrives, sometimes after a 24-hour plane ride, the family picks them up, houses them for a couple of nights, takes them shopping and helps them move in.”
In 2016, 5 percent of 13,410 students at ETSU came from 74 different countries, according to ETSU’s Enrollment Fact Book. That was 676 international students. For some of those students, IBB helped them get to know other students.
After Avila joined IBB, she found other students in the same situation of leaving home and seeking a community.
“You don’t have a car, you don’t know anyone. You miss home, but in IBB, everyone is so welcoming and so open to learn about different cultures,” Avila said.
Avila remained a member of IBB until she graduated. Now a graduate student, Avila is a leader in IBB. Each semester she partners with an international student “buddy” to guide around the campus and city. She shows her buddy campus buildings, takes her to restaurants and even goes to Starbucks.
According to the Institute of International Education, 1 million international students attended schools in the United States in the 2015-16 school year. That is an 85 percent increase from the 564,766 students in 2005-06.
According to the institute, the top five countries that sent students to the United States in 2015-16 were China, India, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Canada. Together, they sent 643,732 students that year. Mexico was 10th with 16,733 students. ETSU had 16 students from Mexico that year.
“I’ve met so many people from around the world, some of my best friends."
– Maria Avila
In the 2005-2006 school year, Mexico ranked seventh with 13,931 students. The top five countries were India, China, South Korea, Japan and Canada, with a total 265,021 students. Saudi Arabia didn’t make the top 20. At ETSU, seven students from Mexico attended.
ETSU has a bilateral exchange program, in which it sends students abroad in exchange for accepting international students. ETSU’s partner countries include England, China, Russia, Norway, Japan and Germany. Each country has at least one institution that takes part.
“International exchange students have the option of attending ETSU for one or two semesters as non-degree seeking students; however, there is also the option of attending ETSU as degree-seeking students,” said Chasity Drew, an international student advisor. “The degree-seeking students are normally here for the traditional four years.”
This semester, Avila’s buddy is from Vietnam, one of the countries not in the exchange program. Ngoc Tran is a business management major at Ho Chi Minh City International University. She found ETSU through the International Student Exchange Program. She is only attending for a semester through ISEP. She joined IBB before attending.
“IBB has helped a lot,” Tran said. “When I came here, I already made friends with international students and American students. They have all been really nice. They are willing to help you and it is really kind.”
Before Tran arrived, she picked out gifts for Avila and her host family, wanting to thank them for welcoming her. Avila received salt and pepper shakers in the shapes of hens.
“She packed them before coming because she knew she was going to have a buddy,” Avila said.
The opportunity at IBB doesn’t end when the exchange period finishes.
“Students, when they go back home, are starting up their own IBB in their universities,” Morrow said. “IBB makes an impact on them and they want to share it.”
A few weeks ago, Avila and a few other IBB leaders planned to take their buddies to a Vietnamese restaurant. What started as a small group turned into 29 people. Avila loved it.
“I ordered a dish with sections of food,” she said. “The meat was in one spot, the veggies in another and I didn’t know how to eat it. My buddy showed me how to put the food together into rice paper. If she had not helped me, I would have eaten each part separately. IBB gave me these opportunities.”
Although Avila cried when she had to come back to ETSU, the tears were temporary when she found IBB.
“I’ve met so many people from around the world, some of my best friends,” Avila said. “It enriches your soul. It really is an amazing experience.”
Above left: Maria Avila talks to Brent Morrow about her gift from Ngoc Tran (Photo by Sydney Graham). Bottom right: Maria Avila and Ngoc Tran go out to eat with other international students (Photo provided by Ngoc Tran).