Buddy program offers support and strengthens connections across labs and cultures

group of students who participated in the buddy program

Author: Sophia Paschke

JANUARY 25, 2022

When did you start the program and why?

As a master’s student in the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmaceutics, Vrishali Sudesh Salian felt there were aspects of the academic culture that could be improved. As her academic career moved into PhD studies, Salian was motivated to voice her opinions and concerns, and recommend changes the department could make. This included establishing a buddy program for master’s students. The program was expanded to include incoming PhD students as they expressed equal enthusiasm and interest.

Salian says the inspiration for the buddy program comes from the large number of students in the department who are from out-of-state or international locations. Many of these students are young, often having just completed their undergraduate degree. They often experience a range of emotions from homesickness, confusion, and feeling lost, to being excited and happy. Students also have many questions and are not comfortable asking for help, causing them to feel lost and nervous about being somewhere new.

Salian says the buddy program was started in 2021 because this is one of the largest cohorts of incoming students the program has had in recent years. There are nine master’s students and three PhD students.

How was the program started?

The idea was to start the program with a senior student paired with each incoming student. The buddy program would be informal, without any professional development activities, but instead focused on personal growth.

To start the program, Salian sent out a form to senior students asking if they would be interested in participating. A few senior students were excited to help and said they wished this kind of support system existed when they were new students. Dr. Karunya Kandimalla, Salian’s advisor, was instrumental in bringing up this proposal to the faculty during the faculty meeting, which also helped the program launch.

Salian knew she wouldn’t be able to run the program all by herself. After expressing interest, Lushan Wang and Sneha Rathi took on a larger role in its development.

During orientation, Salian asked new students whether this was something they would be interested in before officially presenting the program. All of the new students expressed interest and noted they were feeling homesick, confused, lost, as well as excited. The new students were sent an interest form and partnered with buddies.

Additionally, Dr. Kandimalla and Dr. Siegel were instrumental in acquiring funding for the buddy program kickstarter.

What are some of the main goals and activities of the program?

One of the main goals in creating partners was to pair people from different labs and cultures because students mainly talk with people from their own lab or same culture. Although that is what students are most comfortable with, the buddy program was designed to get people out of their shells and comfort zones and to form new relationships.

Right now, the buddy pairs meet once a month to get to know one another. Organizers hope to plan more events in the future so the students can see each other more often and develop stronger relationships.

Salian, Wang and Rathi also hope to share information about resources at the University with students so they are more aware of what’s available and can make the most of them. They remain open to suggestions from the students in the buddy program. This will help them offer opportunities and resources students are interested in and think would be beneficial.

What impact have you seen so far?

The new students have been very grateful for the program. The events are a stress-free outlet, where they don’t have to think about classes, exams and research. They get to have fun in a new environment, develop their “best you,” and meet new people. They find great value in all of this.

What are you most proud of related to the buddy program?

One element the leaders are most proud of is bringing the department closer together since the buddies are from different labs and cultures. The department is like a big family, and the buddy program has helped to strengthen those connections by providing a way for people to talk with one another more often.

Meet the students:

Sneha Rathi completed her undergraduate studies at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai, India, and her Master’s of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research in Hyderabad, India. Sneha came to the University of Minnesota in 2018 to begin her PhD program, where she is now a fourth-year student in the Department of Pharmaceutics. She likes to paint and explore new places in her free time.

Vrishali Salian completed her Bachelor’s of Pharmacy degree in India. In 2018, she came to the University of Minnesota to start her master’s program in pharmaceutics, and transferred to the PhD program in the same lab last year. Vrishali is taking a ceramics class with the arts department this semester and likes painting.

Lushan Wang finished her undergraduate program at Shenyang Pharmaceutical University, where she majored in Traditional Chinese Medicine. During her senior year, Lushan began participating in her current lab, which she has worked in during her Master’s and PhD programs. In her free time, Lushan likes to hike, play badminton, and bike.