To grow a garden of friendship, we must first plant the seed.
by Shaili Sanikapally, GSU Student Contributor
From the surface, Irene Orellana Plaza and Marie Ward could not seem more different. While Irene is an only child from Spain coming to America to get her bachelor's at Georgia Tech, Marie is a mother and an event planner living in Alpharetta. AMIS’s Amigo Friendship Program allowed Marie and Irene to connect over these differences, helping bridge the gap between two cultures, and it blossomed into a beautiful friendship.
Marie first got involved with AMIS to help broaden her and her children’s worldviews and provide them an outlet for cross-cultural learning. Irene heard of AMIS through Reverend Irene Wong, who came to present the Amigo program to the new international students at Georgia Tech. After completing AMIS’s online form in under 5 minutes, the two were paired together by the AMIS Amigo Program just one week later.
Marie and Irene first bonded over their love for plants. The importance that gardening played in both their upbringings is apparent in how much they emphasized the peace and calmness it brings them in their busy day-to-day lives. They each brought with them the plants they bought while plant shopping together when I met with them over coffee.
Irene spoke of how intense America felt after driving to campus from Hartsfield Jackson International Airport; the six-lane highway was a stark contrast to the roads in Spain. Everything from the skyscrapers to the food is larger and/or faster, and “just like in the American movies.” Facing that alone can be incredibly daunting, and the pair recognize the importance of providing a warm and inviting presence when inhabiting a new environment. Irene values her friends from school and the other international students she’s met but acknowledges that American culture is not entirely made up of campus life or fraternity parties. Through Marie’s openness and willingness to share her life and experiences, Irene was able to gain a more holistic perspective of American culture.
Each month, the two took on a new adventure in Atlanta. Marie took Irene to her first-ever baseball game and taught her the ins and outs of crowd cheers. Irene’s favorite activity to date was visiting Marie’s community garden and watering the plants. Marie grew up on a farm in Alabama and wanted to carry on the grounding activity of gardening in her home during the pandemic. Irene missed spending time with her father tending to their home and garden together in Spain. This simple task brought a piece of home to America for Irene and gave both Irene and Marie a space to discuss their home lives, how it shaped who they are today and who they hope to be in the future.
The Amigo Friendship Program is not to provide housing or financial support for international students, but to give them a piece of home during their transition into a foreign country. We share our home through kindness, support, and the willingness to listen and learn from one another. As Marie puts it, it’s about “finding a common ground and meeting people where they are at.” Marie, who is on the AMIS Board of Directors, says the program “helps soften some of the racial issues people may have” regarding different and new cultures. Tackling the racial inequities that plague our nation alone is an incredibly formidable undertaking. AMIS hopes to steadily achieve global racial and ethnic equality, through acts of kindness and friendship. We encourage you to take the first step.
AMIS is currently seeking more community volunteers, in hopes of providing a broader world knowledge to all participants and giving both students and volunteers the opportunity to navigate through life stages together. Marie notes that the program is open to any level of involvement and does not require an intense commitment. If you or someone you know is interested in befriending new international students and making an impact, you can learn more and find the volunteer form for the Amigo Friendship Program here.