World Friends creates bridge between community and international students

Richard Warren plays his drum at a World Friends gathering.
Richard Warren plays his drum at a World Friends gathering.
He had come from Ghana six months ago. He was freezing. “Look, I’ll show you,” and Kwabena Sarpong pulls out his phone while his co-presenter, Sarah Acquah, begins to laugh. He shows me a selfie, bundled up tight in the Las Cruces snow flurries, but smiling. While we consider Las Cruces winters to be mild, those who don’t even have the background of our light snow flurries in a tropical climate still have to have their blood thicken.

Sarpong, who goes by Kobby, and Sarah Acquah, who has been in Las Cruces for two years, were getting ready to do a presentation about Ghana for the World Friends group. New Mexico State University attracts a wide variety of international students, from Africa, from the Middle East, from Asia. While there is support within the campus community to shepherd these students academically and to an extent culturally, the ties to the larger community can be harder to come by without access to a car, or even the language. The World Friends group has become the bridge between these two groups.

Formed in 1981 and in its 35th year, World Friends was originally named Friends of Foreign Students. One of the original founders, Alexandra Eggena, coordinated activities both on campus and in her own home. The group doesn’t have an official university affiliation, however, it has found a home at the Nason House on University Avenue, which houses the Center of Latin American Studies.

After Eggena’s passing in 2000, World Friends was coordinated by Rosario Jeremias and met for potluck at the Cervantes Community Center. The group’s activities had eventually turned into smaller in-home gatherings. After attending the 2015 International Festival, some of the long-standing members decided to revive the group and bring it back to campus. World Friends began meeting on the first Saturday of each month from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m. and is open to not only students, but the Las Cruces community at large.

“It’s a tie between the community and international students,” said Rose Vidal, student support and event coordinator at the Office of International and Border Programs at NMSU. “It gives them a place to practice English that’s not in a school setting and they can bring their food to share bits of home.”

Vidal spoke about how she was opening her home to those celebrating the Lunar New Year. “They don’t have family and are thousands of miles away from home,” said Vidal. “We can give them a sense of family.”

Trung Nguyen, who had been in Las Cruces for all of a month, was attending his first meeting of World Friends. As a biochemistry freshman new to the dorm life, Nguyen was most surprised about the openness of the people he had met so far, including his roommate, an American. “And they speak so fast,” he said.

The potlucks are a draw to students like Nguyen, who sat next to me at a large table, with the buffet of everyone’s dishes spread around the edges of the room. It feels intimate, this breaking of bread with different languages floating around the room. Or, in this case, the wide variety of rices in different dishes. There were also Korean egg pancakes, amazing dumplings, fried fish, and belt-loosening desserts.

Mary Reynolds and Mary Whittemore have seen the World Friends group almost from its inception in the ‘80s when it was established as a way for wives of NMSU foreign faculty to come together and get out. “It was a social outlet, but it was also a way for them to get to the doctor,” said Reynolds. “They didn’t have cars, but some didn’t even know how to drive.”

Reynolds, fond of traveling to places like Egypt and Yemen, said that the benefit of the group was to break the stereotypes of different groups. “You experienced their view of the world,” said Reynolds. “Once you can understand their culture, it broadens your view of the whole world.”

Whittemore continued, “You realize that even though you have different cultures, you have a lot more in common than you think.”

Suzette Haines, the current World Friends coordinator, had been hustling to help Sarpong and Acquah set up for their presentation. “We do encourage our students to talk about their country and we also serves as a dry run for them. Many present programs for other events.”

Richard Warren, a World Friends member, had brought his drum, but it was outside to dry. Haines asked him to bring it in. “Play it!” she urged, gesturing to people still mingling in the room with the food. “Then people will know we’re starting the presentation.”

Warren started a beat and sang, and Sarpong began to dance at the front of the room, elbows up and high, joyfully dancing, with Acquah good naturedly laughing at him.

When the presentation started, you understood why there was good-natured ribbing between the two. They came from different parts of Ghana and with their accents, knew immediately when they met how to size each other up culturally, like in Sarpong’s case, his dancing. However, they both came for the same reasons, to study Water Science and Management at NMSU. Sarpong spoke about desalination, a reminder that deserts have the same problem regardless on what side of the world you’re on.

Sarpong and Acquah gave a rundown of climate and politics, but more fascinatingly, spoke about how names in Ghana relate to your gender and the day you were born. Sarpong picked people from the audience and asked what would their name be if there were in Ghana and were of the Akan people. Kofi for a male on a Friday? Or maybe Yaa for a women born on a Thursday?

“It’s a great place to get to meet students from other cultures without the full responsibility of hosting them,” said Haines. “We do encourage members to invite students home and to get to know them better. It’s a very rewarding experience and as you saw, we still have contact with older member and their children, and some do return to NMSU because their experienced had been so positive.”

Haines had her point proven at the meeting, when the highlight for the older members was a mother and son sitting quietly by themselves. It came out that the mother was the daughter of a member who had come from Malawi and been at NMSU ten years ago.

“In talking with many students you learn quickly that they find a lot about Las Cruces that appeals them, the people are friendly, the climate moderate, and the low cost of living all adds to big draw for them when considering where to apply to further their education,” said Haines. “The students in our group I feel leave with a richer experience because of their interaction within our group and with individual members.”

“Last summer, we helped some teachers from Ecuador. We were asked to speak and listen as they were learning English and would return home to teach English in high school,” said Haines. “Many of those students have chosen to keep contact and I hear from them very often.”

Haines said that there are many ways for the community to get involved. “We try to make it a relaxing event each month for our students, community members can choose how involved they want to be, either bring a dish for potluck and meet students,” said Haines. “Or they can invite students home or simply get to know them by meeting them on campus for coffee; it is that easy.”

For more information on the World Friends and how you can get involved, visit their Facebook page: facebook.com/WorldFriendsNMSU/