Unite UW is a cultural exchange program formed by the university to bring together domestic and international students at UW. But for me, it did so much more than that. It was a life changing experience that allowed me to become friends with some of the most amazing people I have ever met. I am incredibly glad to have gone through this journey, and by reading this, I hope I can convince you, a UW student, to experience this program too.
A bit of background on me: I grew up in a tight-knit community in Vancouver, and I chose to attend UBC as my home university. Though it was close to home, my years at UBC were some of the most socially distant times that I’ve felt in my life. During my freshman year, I chose to live on campus thinking that it would allow me to be more independent and form new friendships easily. However, upon arriving, I felt lonely instead as I didn’t click with my roommates and I didn’t have the support of friends and family back home anymore. To combat my loneliness, I went out to join various student clubs in the hopes of meeting people. I wasn’t entirely committed to any particular club though, so I quickly became a forgettable face when popping in and out of random events. I realize now that I should’ve put all of my eggs in the same basket and applied for a more engaged role in the clubs that I cared about. As the school year went on, all of my unavailing efforts haunted me in a negative feedback loop. The lonelier I felt, the less energy I had to try new initiatives, and by going out less, my loneliness was only further fueled. With all of my social failures at UBC, I viewed an exchange at UW as a second chance at university life.
UW in many ways was the redemption that I sought, and I truly have the Corbetts to thank for this. The fear of repeating my past mistakes motivated me to pursue opportunities with a clear goal of experiencing the local culture in mind. This first led me to discover FIUTS (Foundation for International Understanding Through Students), a program aimed to help international students get together and explore Seattle. Although my experiences with FIUTS are limited, I can see the great intentions behind their goals and I would definitely recommend attending their events. After this was when I discovered Unite UW. To be honest, I almost overlooked this opportunity due to its little advertising, but the free food offered at every meetup sold me. It’s funny because free food is what brought most alumni to Unite UW too, but the memories are what made them stay.
My first experience with Unite UW was as a participant. Participants are divided into small groups of around five and led by a facilitator to better involve each person. The program kicked off with everybody going on a retreat to Pack Forest. Through icebreaker games and mingling, I quickly got to know everyone on a surface level. However, it was through a round table story sharing session afterwards that allowed us to truly bond. Hearing about everyone’s background made me realize how much we all had in common, yet some of the challenges that others faced in the past were unfathomable. It just went to show me that you really can’t judge books based on their covers. After the retreat, the program was split into three groups that got together weekly to engage in group activities. One of the most memorable activities was potluck night, as our facilitator group worked hard through our trial and errors to cook up a presentable dish. It was a fantastic team bonding event that allowed us to try a variety of foods from different cultures at the end. On weekends, everyone would regroup and go on outings. I remember my favourite outing was a scavenger hunt across Downtown Seattle, as I got to visit places like Pike Place Market and Capitol Hill. My facilitator group also got together every once in a while too, and it was fun to just hang out, get food, and visit a museum or sing karaoke. I enjoyed my participant experience so much that I even returned next quarter as a facilitator. Everything was the same as I had loved and remembered, but this time around, I was in the driver’s seat. It was definitely rewarding to see the success of events that I had helped to plan out and lead. As a facilitator, I even got to visit Vashon Island to develop my leadership skills in a separate retreat.
Long after my time with Unite UW, I still find myself engaging with past participants and the student organization associated with the program, UUSA. This one opportunity opened many doors for me, and I now have various interest groups to associate with. Even the pandemic could not break our group bonds, as we still found time to get together and watch movies or play board games online.
One thing that I often heard people talk about at UW is the Seattle Freeze – a belief that Seattleites are cold and difficult to make friends with. But I can’t say this is entirely true, with amazing programs out there like Unite UW to help break the ice. If you are a UW student, and especially an incoming freshman, I highly, highly recommend applying to this quarterly program. For more information, visit: https://unite.uw.edu/
Once united, never divided.
The Corbett British Columbia-Washington International Exchange Program Fund provides an opportunity for undergraduate students at the University of Washington to spend two semesters at the University of British Columbia or University of Victoria; and for students from the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria to spend three quarters at the University of Washington.