U.S. Colleges Focus On Making International Students Feel at Home

When Ivan Sekyonda, a 23-year-old student from Uganda, came to study in the United States...

Home News U.S. Colleges Focus On Making International Students Feel at Home Last updated on: 8/25/20108/25/2010 Total Hits887

When Ivan Sekyonda, a 23-year-old student from Uganda, came to study in the United States, he felt lonely. After all, his native country wasn't well represented at Binghamton University.

But he eventually made friends, including American and international students, and he became more comfortable on the campus. He gives credit to Binghamton's international-student office.

"The orientation staff made us feel welcome and made it easy to understand what was going on," says Mr. Sekyonda, a rising senior studying computer engineering. "They knew we were probably experiencing some culture shock and feeling a bit homesick, and they were willing to work with us and be patient with us."

For colleges focused on internationalizing their student bodies, like Binghamton, getting foreign students onto their campuses is only half the battle. If these students end up socializing and studying only with one another, administrators say, then they—and the colleges' American students—don't benefit much from the experience.

"If you want to be international at all, you've got to be thinking holistically," says Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education. "It really is a continuous process of checking in with international students and making sure they're not in over their heads."

To ensure that international students are well integrated into campus life, colleges have been putting more effort into orientation as well as social and academic programming that engages all students on campus.

"The challenge is to encourage those students to break out of their comfort level and explore the university dynamic," says Ellen H. Badger, director of international student and scholar services at Binghamton, which has won an award for its campus-internationalization efforts. "But integration doesn't need to be forced—it's happening throughout campus every day."
Connecting With the Community

All institutions face the challenge of bringing foreign students into the fold, but this can be particularly difficult for community colleges. It can be hard to integrate a campus where students commute in, go to their classes, and then return to work or families.

Some community colleges have handled this by focusing on off-campus activities. Northcentral Technical College, in Wisconsin, runs a program in which 41 families have agreed to act as mentors for international students. Another 19 families host students in their homes.

If a mentor family is going on a picnic or to a baseball game, the family can call Northcentral's international office and invite students to join in.

Bonnie Bissonette, the associate dean of business and international education at Northcentral, says the college also encourages international students to do volunteer work, starting at orientation, and these efforts help increase their confidence.

"We use a strong web of support for our students," Ms. Bissonette says. "Right away they learn that by volunteering and getting out in the community, it helps them make connections with people."

Erode Laborde came to Northcentral from Haiti last year and is studying small-business management at the college.

Although Mr. Laborde says he was worried at first about coming to the United States, he adjusted by getting involved right away in a variety of activities. He joined the college's business and international clubs, and he has volunteered for more than 250 hours in the community. Those connections helped him find emotional support and raise money when an earthquake ravaged his home country in January.

"Even though it was really hard in Haiti, and there was a lot of emotion, there was a lot of support from the community here," he says. "Coming here and seeing how people got along with us—it was amazing."

Making a Match
J. Michael Adams, president of Fairleigh Dickinson University, has frequently spoken about the need to do a better job of integrating international students on campus.

When American students study abroad, colleges expect them to learn a lot both in and out of the classroom, Mr. Adams says. "We need to apply that same mind-set for the students we have coming here," he says.

"Too many institutions have looked at foreign students as sources of revenue," he adds. "But if you're there to prepare people for this next generation of leadership, they need to know people. And there are informal ways to do that."

Fairleigh Dickinson's Office of Global Learning was designed, in part, to address this challenge. One program, called the Global Enterprise Network, provides training and internships for international graduate students who want to learn about business development.

Some colleges also have created programs in which American students are matched up with international students to help them hone their English skills and introduce them to campus life.

Binghamton University offers such a matching program, as well as one that pairs native English speakers with students who speak English as a second language.

"This allows international students to further their English skills on one side and [for each] to learn more about the [other's] culture," says Rebecca Johnson, a Binghamton senior from Delaware who participated in the ESL program.

The University of California at Los Angeles, which enrolled about 5,000 international students this past academic year, offers a "global-siblings" program that allows domestic students to function as both resources and friends to international classmates.

Uniting Cultures
Some campuses are creating course work specifically for international students, or to bring them together on projects with their American counterparts.

During the last academic year, the University of Southern California began offering a course called "The United States: An American Culture Series," which teaches foreign students about food, customs, and lingo.

A criminal-justice professor at Northcentral Technical College asks his students to develop a project comparing U.S. laws with those in another country. He encourages students to find someone on campus who is from their assigned country and simply get to know that person as a way to learn about the laws there.

Still, integrating the classroom isn't easy, especially in science and technology fields, in which many international students are enrolled.

"Students in these fields are very driven and focused, and so are the Americans," says Mr. Goodman, of the Institute of International Education. "It's possible a lot of students are clustered in labs doing what they came here to do and doing a very good job at it, but it may be more difficult for that integrated learning experience."

Binghamton has been working on that kind of integration for the past 15 years, ever since the university made internationalization part of its strategic planning. Among the changes during that time: doubling international enrollment; requiring that all undergraduates take global-proficiency courses; and adding a host of other programs focused on integrating international students into campus life.

"It's important to attract students based on their intellectual interests and not just cultural ones," Ms. Badger says. "If you're truly internationalizing your campus, the communication is going in both directions. You are integrating domestic students into the international students' culture as well."

Mr. Sekyonda, the Ugandan student, has taken advantage of Binghamton's programs. He volunteers at a local library, serves as the secretary for the National Society of Black Engineers at Binghamton, and participates in the African Student Organization and Bard in the Yard, a student group that performs Shakespeare productions.

Last fall, Mr. Sekyonda volunteered during the international-student orientation, sharing his experiences to help other students transition to the United States.

The integration has gone so well, he says, that "students don't even realize I'm international."

Ivan Sekyonda, Uganda, United States, Binghamton University, American and International Students, Binghamton International-student Office, Senior Studying Computer Engineering, Allan E. Goodman, President of Institute of International Education, Community Colleges, Northcentral Technical College, Wisconsin, Business and International Education

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