At noon on April 17, i20, Swarthmore’s international student group, held its first iteration of a new program called i20 Lunch Buddies on Mertz Field. The socially distanced program aimed to involve more African international students in i20 activities. In the program, i20 provided students in the international community with West African food from a nearby restaurant and randomly placed students into “Buddy Pairs” to better get to know one another.
Swarthmore’s international student community this academic year has had to adapt significantly to the obstacles that COVID-19 has created specifically for international students who are unable to come to the U.S. to study because of travel restrictions and Visa problems. Throughout the academic year, i20 has been hosting virtual events such as trivia to help students studying internationally connect to Swarthmore’s campus community. Additionally, this Spring Swarthmore welcomed its first-ever cohort of spring starters, consisting of fourteen international students. According to Max Finkelstein ’22, a co-President of i20 along with Laura Hirai ’22, about half of the Spring starters are from African countries and about half are from Asian countries.
The Lunch Buddies initiative started after Finkelstein noticed low participation in i20 among African first year students and reached out to Immaculata Daikpor ’24 and Kelvin Darfour ’24 to ask if the African international community at Swarthmore had any concerns that i20 could address. Darfour and Daikpor, who are both African international students on the i20 Board and among Swarthmore’s first-ever cohort of spring starters, both reflected on their own experiences with i20 and solicited feedback from fellow first-year African international students.
“Basically, [fellow first-year African international students] kind of talked about the vibe,” Daikpor said in an interview with The Phoenix. “I think the atmosphere of the i20 dinners we usually attend, it’s … usually the kind of environment where people who know each other stick to their friends, and they just keep talking to their friends, and so they would not know new people … so it wasn’t very inclusive. And also something that came up was about the fact that the events that the [i20] board had been in organizing so far were really Western-focused, and they didn’t really have like an intercultural lens to them.”
Finkelstein commented in an interview with The Phoenix that since COVID restrictions limit the type of events that i20 can hold, many of its formal events (excluding i20’s weekly dinners) are based around social activities, rather than sit-down meals or culture.
“[Bubble tea] was the event that we had prior to Lunch Buddies, and a lot of the social events and stuff like bubble tea didn’t really appeal to the African students,” he said. “Bubble tea for example, pops up because it’s not like a common thing [in Africa], whereas here and in Asia bubble tea is super common. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh bubble tea. Yay.’”
According to Finkelstein, roughly thirteen percent of international students at Swarthmore are from African countries, and out of twelve i20 Board members, only one member per year is typically African. Finkelstein said that in his three years at Swarthmore, there has not been an African co-President of i20, and conversations about the lack of involvement of African international students in i20 activities had not openly taken place prior to Daikpor and Darfour voicing their concerns.
Following Finkelstein reaching out, Daikpor and Darfour had a conversation with both him and Hirai to discuss their concerns and potential COVID-safe solutions to the lack of involvement among African international students in i20. This conversation led to the creation of the i20 Lunch Buddies program, which aimed for more integration of both African and non-African students in the i20 community.
“When we did Lunch Buddies … we didn’t want it to be something only for the Africans to bring in Africans, but really to be an opportunity for every single member of i20 to come in and be like, ‘If I’ve not had a chance all semester to connect to other international students, this is my opportunity.’ It really was that; it was not only African students,” said Daikpor.
According to Daikpor, Darfour, and Finkelstein, the program effectively brought out students who had not attended prior i20 events, including upperclassmen who are not typically as involved in i20.
Darfour said, “I really enjoyed myself, it was really fun. I saw people come out, I saw Africans come out like, and I was like, ‘Wait, like I never, I’ve never seen [you] before.’”
Moving forward, though it is impossible to tell how Lunch Buddies will impact the overall level of involvement of both African and non-African international students in i20, Daikpor is optimistic.
“This is the short term results and it’s positive,” she said. “I feel like long-term, time will tell. Like, it’s not just one event that will bring about like a long term change. It will have to be sustained, so we’ll have to continue doing stuff like this. There’s a new board now, and hopefully it will continue like Kelvin [Darfour] said. It’s not only something that will be for Africans, and [hopefully] integrating every aspect of the international community.”
Finkelstein said that the program successfully achieved its goals and expects i20 presidents in future academic years to continue the event.
“Feedback on the program was very very positive, some feedback both from people at the event in general, and after the event I followed up with … the seven or so African freshmen who felt left out — they all had a great time. And following this there was increased African attendance at i20 dinners … As far as getting African students involved with it, it definitely worked. We had excellent turnout [spaced out to socially distance], and 43 percent were African students, so it really worked for integrating people. I assume that the next year’s presidents will do it again, because feedback was so positive.”
Daikpor highlighted the importance of working together to acknowledge problems and continue to make i20 a more inclusive space.
“I remember that after the conversation we were really talking about the fact that … Max noticed that there was a problem and then he reached out to us and it was just a really productive conversation,” Daikpor said. “For me, I think that just models really, what can be when we acknowledge our differences, acknowledge problems, and we come together to figure out productive solutions.”
Finkelstein emphasized how important the contributions of Darfour and Daikpor were to the event’s organization and overall success.
“I would feel most happy if you [The Phoenix] acknowledge the work that Immaculata and Kelvin did in putting this together, because it really would not have happened without their input.”
Editor’s note: Best Chantanapongvanij, a Managing Editor for The Phoenix, is on the board of i20 but was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.
Photo courtesy of Best Chantanapongvanij for The Phoenix.