When “Buddies” Become Friends

The University of Mannheim’s buddy program VISUM gives students the opportunity to learn about other cultures, to make new friends—or even to meet the love of their life. The initiative helps international students get settled at Mannheim by pairing them with an existing student who acts as their “buddy.” VISUM also runs events throughout each semester that buddies can attend together, creating some unforgettable memories.

“People who get involved in VISUM don’t generally expect anything in return. It simply gives us a warm feeling to know we’re helping hundreds of international students find their feet at Mannheim each semester,” enthuses Ibrahim Gezer. The 27-year-old business administration student has been a member of the student organization for three years and held a variety of posts. Alina Schorn, business law student and VISUM’s current president, adds: “Through VISUM, you come into contact with so many different cultures and people. I’ve made many friends through the initiative and do a lot with them even outside VISUM events.” 

The idea behind the initiative, launched in 1992, is simple. There are two forms on their website: one for German students who are happy to volunteer as a buddy for at least a semester and one for international students who would like a German buddy. Applicants can provide details about themselves and request a second language besides English that their buddy should ideally speak. “We try to accommodate the language requests for as many students as possible, but unfortunately we can’t always guarantee it,” explains Gezer. After the German and international students have been matched, they get an email with their buddy’s contact details. The German buddy acts as a point of contact for any problems or questions, and will help the international student settle into Mannheim. “Our program is open both to exchange students who are only here for a semester and to those completing their entire bachelor’s or master’s in Germany. Sometimes we even get sign-ups from international students enrolled at other Mannheim universities. We can happily match them with a buddy too,” says Schorn. In the current fall semester, VISUM matched up around 550 buddy pairs. Before the Covid pandemic, that figure was well over 1,000. 

But the work of the 180 or so VISUM members is not done after they have finished matching everyone up. Throughout the semester, they offer various events for the buddies, which are often also open to other interested students. These include themed evenings, karaoke parties, and trips to soccer and ice hockey matches. One highlight for Gezer and Schorn is the pub crawl. “The participants are split into four teams and then visit various pubs and bars in a certain order. At the end, all the teams meet at a club and party together for the rest of the evening,” explains Schorn. “But we don’t just party, of course,” adds Gezer, laughing. “Each semester there are also museum visits, city trips, bike rides, and much more.” However, things have not all been rosy: “The Covid pandemic made our work a lot more difficult over the last two years. While in-person teaching was suspended, we couldn’t find enough German buddies, so sometimes one VISUM member had to look after six or seven international students. We organized a lot of online events so that we still had something to offer them, but of course that’s not the same.” 

You can see the enjoyment that Gezer and Schorn take in their work for VISUM written on their faces. “We get so much positive feedback from both the German and the international students. One student even thanked me because he met his future wife through VISUM,” laughs Gezer. He gets a lot out of the initiative, too. “I’ve made friends with students from all over the world, including someone who’s now my best friend.” Schorn also knew right away that VISUM was right for her: “I’ve had some unforgettable moments with my previous buddies and I can only recommend that every student tries it out for themselves. I’m sure that our buddy program will lead to lots more international friendships this semester too.”

Text: Jessica Scholich / October 2022