Just imagine: you go to Vienna to study music, but Vienna’s closed.

Easing the arrival of international first-semester students in Vienna and at the University, helping them network socially once here: it was a desire to do precisely these things that inspired the Buddy Programme’s conception as part of the mdw Diversity Strategy back in 2019. However, anyone who arrived in Austria last autumn to begin their studies was soon faced with far greater challenges than anything that could’ve been imagined during this project’s planning phase.

The Buddy Programme, after all, had been conceived at a time when coughing in a concert might have elicited a few reproachful glances, at most; it certainly wouldn’t have caused people in white coveralls to appear at one’s door. So one might ask: were things like regular networking meet-ups, concert attendance, and making new friends even conceivable during a semester that was shot through with various flavours of lockdown?

In actual fact, it soon became evident that this project hadn’t been initiated a moment too soon. When the answer to the question, “How do I find a practice room?” can change from one week to the next; when a terrorist attack in downtown Vienna can result in a national-emergency-in-a-pandemic; and when you’re new in Vienna but have to stay home, a programme that opens the door to human encounters even during a lockdown becomes more valuable than ever.

The full flexibility and creativity of last year’s altogether eight buddies were required in order to repeatedly adapt group activities to the necessary safety measures at short notice—activities like videoconferences, phone calls, and outdoor meet-ups that ranged from cycling trips and city walks to ice-skating and group discussions in the park.

And amidst heavy restrictions on interpersonal contact, even online meetings—despite the global videoconference fatigue that had begun to set in—were capable of doing some good. These ran for hours and hours, with no shortage of things to talk about. And speaking of global: the Buddy Programme’s participants hailed from a total of 13 different countries including Mexico, Lithuania, Spain, Ukraine, China, South Korea, and Japan.

When physically present meetings became possible once more, the in-person encounters that took place were greatly enjoyed and even celebrated as something special—and some of the planned activities that had had to be cancelled eventually did go forward on the participants’ own initiative after the programme had officially concluded.

From the very beginning, the core of this concept featured the formation of buddy groups: teams of two buddies, both advanced students at the mdw who had gone through a selection process and a two-day training programme, were responsible for groups of between five and nine international first-semester students. 2020/21 involved a total of four such buddy groups.

This form of organisation was chosen in order to have the offerings go beyond practical help in everyday student life and bureaucratic processes, also including opportunities to get acquainted and form social networks. And in addition to the experiences and ideas of the buddies themselves, those of the first-semester students likewise proved useful to all those involved. Activities together were planned in a participative manner, and the participants’ lively interdisciplinary mix resulted in acquaintances that made it possible for them to look beyond the confines of their own subject areas, acquaintances that perhaps wouldn’t have ever been made without this programme. During this initial year, the full range of artistic, education-related, and academic programmes of study was represented, as were all levels of study—ranging from preparatory programme participants to bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and diploma students and on to postgrads and doctoral candidates.

Alongside monthly networking meetings, the buddies’ availability as personal points of contact for the participating first-semester students is likewise a core element of this programme. And indeed, having someone to whom one can turn at any time did prove especially helpful over the past academic year.

Altogether, participants reported that they felt very welcome in the Buddy Programme and that it was quite helpful in getting settled at the mdw. And it was hence with a goodly measure of experience and anticipation stored up as well as lots of new ideas that the Buddy Programme entered its second year this September!

Students who are interested in joining the 2021/22 Buddy Programme can do so until 31 October 2021; to register or receive further information, please write to buddy@mdw.ac.at.

Complete information can be found at: mdw.ac.at/buddy

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