Initiatives ease shift to U.S., NU

Amanda Laabs

When SESP junior and international student Meixi Ng first encountered the revolving door at Norris University Center, she rushed to squeeze herself into a section already occupied by another student, a customary practice for the sake of efficiency in her native country of Singapore.

Not realizing Americans so highly value their personal space, Ng got a few dirty looks.

With the help of a variety of programs, international students at Northwestern can avoid such cultural foibles. The International Student Association, in conjunction with NU’s International Office, offers many long-standing and newly introduced resources to ease the daunting transition these students face.

“There are transitions and shocks that face American students in their first year of college,” Weinberg senior and ISA President Alex Jeffers said. “But for international students, it’s all of that on top of the transition to a whole new country.”

The International Student Association, founded in the spring of 2008, focuses on helping international students with this cultural learning process. Though the International Office is able to help with the policy and procedure of attending college in an entirely new country, many international students felt a lack of support when it came to the cultural transition, Ng said.

“They’re wonderful in helping with the paperwork and policy stuff, but other than that, we were treated like any other student,” she said. “Even something as simple as having someone there to help you move in – other American students had their parents – we felt it was important to provide that.”

Since its formation, ISA has teamed up with the International Office to provide a special orientation session for incoming international freshmen. Beginning the Saturday before Wildcat Welcome, students have four days in which to build a group dynamic and form international peer connections. Though only in its second year, the sessions have received positive feedback, Jeffers said.

The International Office has also stepped up its own attempts to ease the adjustment for international students. After Sept. 11, the office was forced to focus on new immigration regulations, said Ravi Shankar, director of the International Office. Staff members are implementing new programs to focus more on advising students and are considering working with Counseling and Psychological Services to accomplish this, Shankar said.

Last year, with the support of NU’s administration, the International Office gained a full-time staff member focused solely on international student programming and orientation.

“Still, our main goal is to take stock of what happens on campus and do our best to integrate international students into this,” Shankar said. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here.”

In addition to new efforts, the International Office offers existing programs aimed at easing this cultural transition, including a 50-year partnership with the Community Council for International Students, a volunteer group of Evanston residents and Northwestern students. The council offers programs that allow international students to reside or partner with an Evanston family, as well as an English Conversation Partners program where international students practice speaking English with fluent English speakers at least once per week.

Betty Dickman, the council’s president, said the organization is always trying to reach out to more students.

Given the variety of programs available at NU, international students now have a wealth of resources at their fingertips to aid with the numerous aspects of cultural adjustment, especially with the formation of ISA, Jeffers said.

“ISA gives international students something to be associated with from the second they step on campus,” he said. “I can see it growing exponentially – it’s a new group, but there’s definitely a tangible need for it.”

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