Video chatting with a buddy to combat social isolation
Mentoring programme for international students at Ulm University goes online

Ulm University

The summer semester has started – and as many others this year, Ulm University had to roll it all out in digital form due to the corona pandemic. The current restrictions on social interactions and outdoor activities are particularly hard for the new international students. Far from home, many of them are now stuck all by themselves in an unfamiliar city. To help them explore their new environment at least digitally and to foster connections with more senior students, the International Office at Ulm University has brought its popular Buddy Programme into a digital format.

'Buddies' are experienced students who act as mentors to help the newcomers from abroad find their way around in everyday life and settle in at the University. They help with organisational questions and spend some of their free time with their new international fellow students. Meeting in person, however, is currently not an option due to the corona pandemic. 'The participants now connect in digital form via online meetings and chats to help bring the international students out of their social isolation,' explains Daniela Englisch, Director of the International Office at Ulm University.

The Buddy Programme also offers digital events with specific mottos. On 7 May, for example, there will be a digital 'Eat Together', where people will present their favourite foods to each other and talk about food culture and culinary stereotypes. The aim is for everyone to have their say, tell something about their homeland and get to know each other in a laid-back way. A Game Night is planned for the end of May, where the students compete in an online quiz with questions about Ulm, the University, Germany and the participants' home countries. Another completely new element of the programme is the mutual support chain system, which orchestrates instant support in the form of grocery shopping for those who end up in quarantine. 'This is particularly important for students who have just arrived in the country and do not have a local social network,' says Englisch.

About 30 mentors are currently active in the Buddy Programme. At first glance, it may seem strange that those who offer and those who receive support are sometimes located in wildly different corners of the world: One example is Sohail Sholapure, a third-semester master's student in the Communication Technology programme at Ulm University, who is currently in his Indian home town Pune due to travel restrictions. Despite being in India, he has become a mentor in the Buddy Programme and is looking after a first-year student at Ulm University. 'This shows how the new digital format of the programme sometimes bears remarkable fruits, and despite all the deprivations caused by social distancing, it also offers new possibilities that we had not thought of before,' says Daniela Englisch. The Buddy Programme, which was launched in 2010 and has become very popular with students, is financed through quality assurance funds allocated by the student body.

The preparation semester for international students also runs digitally

The international programme FOKuS – Studienstart Deutsch, a preparatory semester at Ulm University offering language training and cultural orientation, has also been brought into an online format. Over 40 international students have enrolled in it this summer semester; due to extended registration deadlines, the number of participants may grow even more. In this programme, prospective students prepare for the demanding German language tests for university admission, learn about regional characteristics and the political culture of Germany, attend their first subject-specific courses and familiarise themselves with the local academic study and examination methods.

Prior to the corona crisis, FOKuS – Studienstart Deutsch was in great demand at Ulm University and the courses almost threatened to burst at the seams. 'Due to cancellations, however, the situation has calmed down a bit. This means we can now work with normal group sizes of 15 to 20 people, which can be easily be managed online as well,' says Jan Rick, central coordinator of the support for international degree students and refugee advisor at the International Office.

Studying in times of Corona is a great challenge for students from abroad

No matter in which support or degree programme the new international students are enrolled: studying in times of corona is a real challenge. Things might not go as planned or according to schedule, and working with online formats is unfamiliar to many. Add to that language difficulties and inadequate IT equipment. 'Due to travel restrictions, some international students cannot come to Germany in the first place. And there are also quite a few among them who have lost their part-time jobs as a result of the corona crisis and at the same time are not entitled to financial education assistance or social security benefits,' adds Jan Rick. In addition to these existential financial problems, there is also the risk of running into complications with visa requirements if the study schedule is delayed. 'We take the concerns and problems of our international students very seriously and are looking for creative and digital solutions to support them in this difficult situation,' explains the Director of the International Office, Daniela Englisch.

Text: Daniela Englisch and Andrea Weber-Tuckermann

Actually, the university is a place of encounter. But this spring, everyone studies and learns for themselves. This is particularly difficult for foreign students who are new at the university (Photo: Annika Bingmann, Ulm University)
The digital buddy programme is designed to help students from abroad who are new at the University of Ulm to escape social isolation (Photo: pixabay)
A picture of the summer semester 2018: International students are preparing for their studies at the University of Ulm in the preparatory semester. Unfortunately, there is not so much personal contact in the current semester because of Corona. All courses and also the buddy programme take place online (Photo: Elvira Eberhardt, Ulm University)