Strangers Become Friends
Strangers Become Friends
Building a welcoming community by connecting international students and local residents
International students are increasingly seen as an important part of the urban prosperity agenda. They are potential immigrants and employees in aging societies, offer future access to global markets and intercultural competencies, and can help open up a community to becoming a welcoming and diverse society.
In 2002, the city of Erfurt, located southwest of Leipzig, recognized that it needed to embrace its international student population as an engine of growth. The previous decade had seen the re-opening of the University of Erfurt and new opportunities for local development emerge against the back-drop of German re-unification. As the city began to attract growing numbers of students from around the world, civic leaders started to register the value of being a destination city in an increasingly mobile world. The city council, the University of Erfurt, the Erfurt University of Applied Sciences and the Thuringian Institute for Continuing Education eV embarked on a project to promote openness and a culture of welcome with the aim of establishing the city’s reputation as a friendly and tolerant regional capitol.
The result was Fremde werden Freunde (Strangers Become Friends). The program connects international students with local residents, universities and businesses to help newcomers feel more welcome while strengthening local civic engagement and opening cultural horizons.
Inspired by a similar program in Frankfurt, Erfurt adapted Strangers Become Friends to meet the needs of a city newly attuned to issues of diversity and integration. “Erfurters should realize we are at the beginning of having a cosmopolitan city,” says project manager Petra Eweleit.
Erfurt is well on its way to becoming that city. Today the state capital of Thüringen has a population of 206,000, of which 3.7% are foreign-born. The international student population has grown from ten per year to 200 a term, or approximately 500 in residence annually, from countries such as China, Indonesia, France, Afghanistan and Serbia.
A culture of welcoming
Eweleit recalls the discussions that took place during the project implementation: “We must do something to include international students in our daily lives. We wanted to show the international students that Erfurters welcome them warmly. We wanted them to come to our city to live.” The organizers also realized their efforts needed to include the host community. As Eweleit remarks: “We wanted our inhabitants to be more open-minded, sensitive, and create a culture of welcoming.”
Reaching the projects’ dual audiences – cultivating international students and long-time residents – required a multi-pronged approach. An important part of the project was developing a network of local hosts to mentor students and engage in an intercultural exchange that could enrich both visitors and the city. Called “Ambassadors of Welcome,” hosts come from all walks of life – families, single persons, retirees and young people – and include politicians, business owners and members of local civic clubs. Recruitment activities fanned out across the city: workplace presentations, visits to community organizations as well as a publicity campaign that involved newspapers, radio interviews and a dedicated website.
Program activities include a welcome reception at the Town Hall to introduce foreign students to their mentors; group field trips to strengthen relationships; regular monthly meetings; and workshops covering topics such as “intercultural competence” or the history and cultural geography of specific countries. Together the mentor and student may visit cultural or sporting events, go for walks through the city or even visit the mentor’s family during celebrations. Mentors also help students organize visits to physicians or assist with administrative tasks. Students have the opportunity to practice German and learn about everyday life in Germany.
Making the business case
The program is committed to finding new and innovative ways to deepen the quality and sustainability of its integration efforts. One such strategy is co-operation with industry.
Against a backdrop of skills shortages and growing global competition, the integration of students into the city’s economy was quickly embraced by local business leaders. In 2006 the program was expanded to include the participation of local businesses. Companies provide mentors and internships, and involve students and staff in site visits, job fairs and business events with the support of the local Chamber of Commerce and other project partners. Students gain valuable working experience in Germany, and local enterprise taps into a pool of talented young people with technical, linguistic and intercultural skills as well as potential access to international markets. It’s a win-win situation.
“I’ve become a different person, a citizen of the world. I love you, Erfurt. Although I now go back to my homeland, Erfurt is always my other home.” Sari a.m. (Indonesia), 2004
Strangers Become Friends has reached its second decade. What began in November 2002 with 46 pairings and students from nine countries, today has matched some 1,200 students from 93 nations, about 200 per semester. Alumni are known to keep in touch even to attend each other’s weddings. The project’s success is a testament to the cooperation of partners, The University of Erfurt, the Erfurt University of Applied Sciences, the Erfurt City Council and the Thuringian Institute for Continuing Education who jointly finance the position of the project manager.
In 2006 and 2007, the project was recognized for its “imaginative and effective civic engagement,” and in 2010, the German federal Foreign Office awarded the project the top prize for “international students’ support and integration.” Its success in developing a culture of welcome – helping newcomers to integrate, increasing social cohesion, building intercultural awareness, dispelling myths and creating openness – has attracted other German universities to come to Erfurt for guidance on how to start their own “Fremde werden Freunde.”
Making it Work for You:
- Mentoring success depends on the quality and commitment of all parties. Developing a mentor network in the host community means reaching out to as many organizations and workplaces as possible.
- Intercultural exchange does not have one success formula – it is a two-way dialogue between student and host that involves seeking out common interests and opportunities for shared experience, whether its sports, arts or food.
- Share your success and encourage others to participate. A publicity campaign can demonstrate the project’s benefits with the wider community while attracting the interest of more students, hosts and community partners.
For this Good Idea contact:
Petra Eweleit, University of Applied Sciences of Erfurt
Altonaer Straße 25