When Bill DeSio, a 1973 alumnus, met a Chinese exchange student four years ago, the last thing he expected was to be a witness at the student’s wedding.
“It was kind of like a Las Vegas-type thing, but it was on Arch Street,” DeSio said.
After spending several holidays together, including Thanksgiving, the two formed a close bond – close enough that the exchange student, Yingyuan Yang, asked DeSio to stand in when he said “I do.”
DeSio met Yang through TemPALS, a program the Alumni Association launched in an attempt to better acclimate international students to Temple, Philadelphia and the country.
“Many international students who are brand new to the U.S. and to Temple have challenges in learning a new culture, a new city and a new university,” said Christine Brady, director of volunteers at the Office of Alumni Relations, who helps run the program.
The program, which started in 2008, offers Temple alumni the opportunity to connect with current international students.
“A TemPAL simply means an alumnus or an alumnae who serves as a pal to a foreign student while they’re here in the U.S. and at Temple,” Brady said.
Brady said the program was implemented to overcome cultural barriers that could prevent international students from socializing with other Temple students and fully enjoying their time in America.
Often, international students want to see the inner workings of American culture, not just tourist destinations, Brady said. In giving international students a glimpse at their personal lives, Brady said she believes alumni can ease the transition international students face.
“[International students] are often away from their families for a year to two years,” Brady said. “We encourage the alumni to spend time with them. It doesn’t have to be anything special.”
“Sometimes the alumni will take them to cultural events or out to dinner or to a really wonderful show, but it’s not a requirement,” she added. “In many cases, the foreign students simply want to chat in English and they want to sit in someone’s living room and see how they exist as a culture and as a family.”
Richard Li, a senior media studies and production major from Dalian, China, participated in TemPALS in 2012 and 2013. Li said his TemPAL, 2003 alumnus Sean Mckoy, aided him professionally.
“He had a video production company, which is what I’m majoring in,” Li said. “He let me participate in a lot of company stuff.”
Li said the relationship the two formed eventually extended beyond professional boundaries.
“We really got along a lot regarding not only my major, but also my life issues,” Li said.
Li said he was considering moving back to China when he met Mckoy, who he said convinced him to stay and experience more of Temple and Philadelphia.
“I wasn’t involved in a lot of activities before I met him, and he encouraged me to be in a lot of student organizations and activities, and I gradually became to love Philly and Temple,” Li said. “It was a great impact.”
This was a process, Li said, that wouldn’t have been nearly as easy without TemPALS.
“The reason I was studying abroad was to experience culture, but I wasn’t involved in culture before,” Li said. “The TemPALS program was trying to help students to get rid of the strange feeling about a new country, a new culture and everything.”
Brady said TemPALS pairs roughly 55 international students with 55 alumni every year and is open to all alumni and international students.
The program hosts orientations for both students and alumni in the fall to address expectations of the program. Brady said matches are made when alumni and students share similar interests or educational backgrounds. A meet and greet is then held on Sept. 18, annually.
Brady said students and alumni are highly encouraged to attend the homecoming football game in October, where they participate in what she and the International Student and Scholar Services call “Football 101.”
“The Temple football coach and the players put [international students] in pads and helmets and make them run drills,” Brady said. “[Football] is such an American tradition. It’s not big in any other country.”
Erika Clemons, Associate Director for Global Partnerships and Relations, works in International Student Services and contributes frequently to the program. Clemons said the timing of the program is crucial.
“It really helps [international students] through a tough time,” Clemons said. “The first couple weeks are hardest, so I think they really bond in the start because they are there through the transition.”
Brady said many TemPALS and international students create bonds that last for years, like DeSio and Ying. DeSio said Ying, who now lives in Tennessee, emailed him as soon as he found out his wife was pregnant.
“For me, and my wife, it was a very good experience,” DeSio said. “They met our kids. They met our grandkids. We had 25 people over for Thanksgiving. That’s a normal Thanksgiving, but they had never experienced that. They’ve never had turkey.”
Brady and DeSio both said the program is just as beneficial for alumni as it is international students.
“Over the holidays they took us to Chinatown for food that I would never order,” DeSio said. “We tried a lot of interesting things to say the least. It’s really a good experience to get to know people from another country. How many people can you say you know from China?”
The program, which was previously only open to senior citizen alumni, opened up to all alumni last year.
“I think we simply felt that the older alumni would have a repertoire of life experience, and perhaps more time on their hands,” Brady said. “That’s probably true; however, many of us have discovered and learned that international students do have difficulty making friends.”
“So, we said ‘Let’s open it up to all alumni,’” Brady said. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner, but it’s really wonderful. You have somebody that shares the generation with you.”
In the future, Brady said she wants to offer students the opportunity to participate in TemPALS.
Li said he wants awareness of the program to spread.
“I really do think this is a program that not all the international students utilize well,” he said. “I think more international freshman should be involved with this program. This is just another way to get involved with America and find your American family.”
Claire Sasko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @ClaireSasko