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For international students at UMass Lowell, first hockey game a nice icebreaker

When you talk to international students about adjusting to college life at UMass Lowell, they often mention a few of the same memorable new experiences. Moments like admiring New England's fall foliage, carving a pumpkin or playing in their first snowfall.

And of course, attending a hockey game for the first time in their lives.

More than 4,200 fans cheered on the UML men’s hockey team as it opened its 2019-20 season with a 5-1 win over the University of Alabama Huntsville in early October. Among them was a group of international undergraduate and graduate students who were taking in the Saturday night spectacle for the very first time.

The eight students, who hail from China, India, Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan, were accompanied by Kayla Schneider, student experience specialist for the Navitas Global Student Success Program (GSSP).

“Going to a hockey game is a great way for students to feel part of the campus community,” says Schneider, who sat with the group in student section 102, answering their questions throughout the game about everything from penalty calls and student chants to Zambonis and concessions.

Dahye Oh, a freshman nutrition science major from Korea, was one of the first students to meet Schneider outside the arena before the game. While Oh grew up watching basketball, she didn’t know the first thing about hockey.

“I just know that it’s a sport – and there’s hot dogs,” she said with a laugh as the group made its way toward the arena’s new student entrance, where they were given River Hawk towels to wave during the game.

Once inside the Tsongas Center, where the students snapped photos of the ice and mugged for selfies with Rowdy on the concourse, it didn’t take long for them to get into the spirit. As the players took the ice and the UML marching band broke into “River Hawk Pride” one section over, the students sprang to their feet and waved their towels with hundreds of their classmates.

When senior forward Colin O’Neill scored the River Hawks’ first goal of the season 1:21 into the contest, the students jumped to their feet again and joined the full-throated celebration.

Sachin Gupta, a first-year Ph.D. student in physics from India, compared the atmosphere to some of the cricket matches he’s attended back home.

“The crowd is excellent. They are shouting wonderfully. I love it!” said Gupta, who was impressed by the speed and physicality of the play on the ice. “They really have to act very fast. When they come near the goal, they are really hitting each other.”

Gupta was cheering alongside Ishan Pai, a freshman mechanical engineering major from India, who was showing his team pride in a UML sweatshirt.

“I didn’t expect the crowd to be this big,” said Pai, who posted photos on Instagram throughout the game so friends and family back home could share in his experience.

Earlier in the day, Pai had enjoyed another classic fall experience: apple picking. The trip was arranged by the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) for students participating in the Pair-Up Program.

The OMA holds regular events throughout the academic year such as “Culture Shock Talks,” English conversation groups and career workshops. Those programs complement the services provided by the International Students & Scholars Office (ISSO) and Navitas GSSP.

“I got up early for my studies, because I knew it would be a long day,” said Pai, who had been encouraged to attend the hockey game by some of his new American friends. “I heard that it’s good to get together and have fun here. I think students need a change in their daily schedules. You can’t only be engrossed in watching movies and that kind of entertainment. Sports is also part of entertainment.”

Ruby Lin, a freshman business administration major from Taiwan, came to the game with her Fox Hall roommates at the suggestion of their resident advisor.

“It’s so intense. Everyone is so into it,” said Lin, who enjoys watching baseball and basketball on TV. “It’s a little different to be here at the game.”

Would she be coming back for more games?

“Of course!” she said.

By the start of the third period, the students appeared to be right at home in the crowd. As fans around the darkened arena turned on their phone flashlights and began waving them in the air like they do at every home game, a few of the international students could be seen holding up their phones and humming along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” 

“The atmosphere is really amazing,” said Jinhua Yan, a freshman business administration major from China. “I’ve never experienced fun like this.”