Lately I realised that none of my best international friends were met during language exchange. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy taking part in “tandems”, and I have a great time in conversation clubs such as One World Café (every Thursday 4-6pm in Foundry).
Although one of my best friends was my tandem partner at first, within two exchange sessions we had both reverted to English (which is not our native language). Here is the catch: good language exchange is about being focused on learning, but I have found it impossible to force myself to study grammar when I could discuss world food or the condition of women in different countries instead! So my friend and I just started to get coffee & chat while I found another person to study Mandarin on the side.
Similarly, the increasing amount of international students in our university has started a new phenomenon in class: native English speakers are sometimes a minority in postgraduate studies. Consequently they might have to help their fellow students through group work. Although being seen as a leader is gratifying, it is not the best way to make friends. I think that’s because this unwanted position of relative superiority is not easy to transform in friendship. My theory is that the best way to start friendship is to be in a situation of equality with someone, if possible when facing the same experiences.
Additionally international students might find it difficult to integrate a UK only group of friends, as it is intimidating to be the one that slows down the conversation. What got me at first is that it is SO hard to be funny in another language, and much of my social skills rely on humour. So thinking back on my own experience, my solution to make awesome international friends is simply to work with them.
In 2013, I worked as assistant for Orientation, an event that takes place every September. It’s a fulfilling job, welcoming new international students to the university: The Orientation team helps them to meet new friends and get essential information ahead of Fresher’s week. The Meet & Greet team works at the airport and provides the first contact in the UK (some students never left their country before and we are the friendly face at their arrival!). I enjoyed the teamwork with other assistants, 50% of whom where UK nationals and 50% from other nationalities. We dealt with our task in amazing conviviality with the occasional thrill to solve unexpected problems (think along the lines of lost laptops, or keys collection after hours). Plus I was making amazing friends while doing paid work!
The best part is that I never had to teach anybody my language in the process! Believe me, French grammar is the worst thing I ever tried to teach. During Orientation my colleagues had various degrees of English fluency and no one made an issue of it. Without doubt Orientation is where I made some of my best friends in Sheffield (notably my awesome flatmate). I personally liked it so much that I returned as a Meet & Greet Deputy in 2014 and Coordinator in 2015. Yet I know there are other opportunities out there, for example people in SheffMUN do a great job at being purposefully multicultural.
So if you don’t have the teaching vocation and still want to find crazy friends to visit around the world after you graduate, you now have some ideas where to start! If you already started, you might want to support #WeAreInternational …