A group of student hikers on a grassy hill overlooking the ocean.

Simon Schachner (far left) and a group of students at Jack Point Park / Image via Roberto Donoghue

Imagine this: you move to VIU from another country. You arrive at your new residence and are immediately overwhelmed by the transit system, language, and even the environment. It’s scary—all you want to do is huddle at your desk or under the covers.

Fortunately, there’s a community already waiting for you.

Cultural Connections is VIU’s special umbrella program based in the International Education building (B255) on the Nanaimo campus. It hosts a mixture of on- and off-campus events and activities open to all students.

Its mission is simple: “Connect students with students, with the community, [and] with local events that are going on,” Activity Program Coordinator Kelsey Moon said.

Moon organizes and advertises Cultural Connections’ Road Trips and Local Hikes series. She even drives the bus.

Every semester, students can choose from a variety of Saturday and mid-week road trips, including Victoria, Tofino, and the WildPlay Element Park in Nanaimo. There are also local hikes—such as Westwood Lake and Ammonite Falls—every second Friday. 

Simon Schachner is the Intercultural Program Coordinator at International Education. He is in charge of on-campus events such as Culture Couch and Global Groove. 

The Culture Couch started in Student Residences featuring an actual couch and is now hosted every Tuesday evening in Building 255. While the couch is gone, students can still learn about a different culture every week, enjoy traditional food and games, and get a chance to host a session themselves.

“[Culture Couch is] like a home base on campus,” Schachner said. “Every week you can go there and you’re going to meet people and you’re going to be welcome.”

Cultural Connections also partners with the VIU Students’ Union (VIUSU) for the Global Groove concert series. These concerts feature different musical genres and take place at the Students’ Union Pub on the first Friday of each month. 

During the summer, when there are mostly international students, Cultural Connections provides sports and other recreational activities at the Student Residences. 

It’s through the Residences that Sustainable Leisure Management student Siddharth Mane learned about Cultural Connections’ trips. Two days after arriving in Canada from India, he went on a hike to Buttertubs Marsh Park.

Mane loves nature and enjoys getting the chance to explore Vancouver Island’s hidden gems. He also appreciates the efforts Moon and the rest of the team make to get to know the other students. 

“They try really hard to communicate well and try to gel other people,” he said. “They try to keep the vibes good.”

As with many things, COVID-19 impacted Moon’s duties. Some of Cultural Connections’ partners shut down, while others raised their prices and ties had to be cut. Despite new partnerships, she is still struggling to keep prices affordable for students. 

Besides maintaining low costs, another big challenge for the program is getting students to talk to people outside of their nationality.

“Sometimes you’ll have people that will stick to their language groups,” Schachner said. “And there’s nothing really wrong with that, but we want people to get out of their comfort zone, maybe meet people from Canada or from other places.”

That’s where the Peer Helpers and Student Activity Leaders come in. 

The Peer Helpers are student volunteers who help with English as a Second Language (ESL) Orientation and Cultural Connections events. Their main task is to talk to the students, answering questions they might have about campus or Island life. 

Unlike the Peer Helpers, the Student Activity Leaders’ position is paid. They assist Moon and the rest of the team on the trips, serving as backup for emergency situations but also interacting with students. “You have to have connection with the students, so they will feel more comfortable,” Student Activity Leader Alicia He said.

He, a Tourism Management student from Northern China, learned about Cultural Connections through the biannual Coffee Around the World “Block Party,” held at the start of each semester. At these parties, students get to showcase coffee and tea from their home countries, and try new ones they’ve never heard of.

She loves her job, mostly because of the atmosphere at Cultural Connections. “[Everybody] on the team is amazing. They are really understanding.” She also likes getting “paid to have fun” and encourages students to apply for the position when it’s available.

Working at Cultural Connections has enriched Moon’s life as much as the students’. She’s made many new friends and is still in touch with former staff. 

“It’s building the connections for us, too,” she said. “So when we’re smiling and engaging with you, that’s us. We’re not putting on a show.”

Schachner has watched students who were shy at the beginning become more confident and go on to facilitate their own events. He enjoys connecting people and learning about different cultures in a more informal way. 

While he likes seeing so many international students, he’d like more participation from domestic students. “[Cultural Connections is] very international- and intercultural-focused, but Canada is a diverse country,” he explained, “and we want those domestic students to also feel welcome, that this is a space for them and that they could share their culture, too.”

Mane and He both encourage students to check out Cultural Connections. “Try it out. You get to meet a lot of awesome people. You get to have fun . . . you will have a great experience there,” He said.

“No matter what you like, go to Cultural Connections,” Mane said.

 

For the full list of trips and prices, when and where to pay, and other upcoming events such as WorldVIU Days and Global Citizens Week, check out the Monthly Event Calendar or follow Cultural Connections on Instagram @viu_culturalconnections.

Editor

Sophia Wasylinko is a third-year Creative Writing and Journalism student. She was the Entertainment Reporter for CHLY 101.7FM in winter 2020. Her favorite things in life are cats, the color purple, coffee, and books (mysteries or books about ghosts, murder, and crime in general). Sophia is excited to be back in Nanaimo and hopes to explore more of Vancouver Island this year.

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