By Cathy Mentzer

A few days before Wilson’s spring semester began on Jan. 25, three new international students from Indonesia, Panama and Uzbekistan were taking part in orientation, but the impending Blizzard of 2016 was the main thing on their minds.

“I’m very excited,” said 19-year-old Alvin Kurnia Sandy of Indonesia. “Snow is the thing I wanted to see the most before coming to America.” Like him, 21-year-old Leydianis Gonzalez of Panama had never seen snow. “Really, it has been my dream to throw snowballs,” she said.

Within 24 hours, the students were enjoying more snow—about 30 inches of it—than they ever dreamed.  “I felt like I went into my fridge back in Indonesia,” laughed Sandy, who said he and the other new students had a snowball fight, made snow angels and walked all over campus during the snowstorm. “But I loved it.”

These priceless moments are part of the international student experience at Wilson College. While students come here to get an education, many also arrive with the goal of absorbing the American culture and way of life. The exchange that ensues enhances the entire Wilson community.

“It’s so powerful and so important for us to have a diverse community,” said Elissa Heil, vice president for academic affairs,  herself a product of study abroad, which she participated in both in high school and college. “That’s how we break down barriers. That’s how we break down prejudices. That can be uncomfortable, but it’s also exhilarating.”

Nihed Kassab, a senior from Tunisia attending Wilson through a one-year, U.S. State Department program called the Global Undergraduate Exchange (UGRAD) Program, is trying to soak up as much U.S. culture as she can. She sees the experience as an opportunity to build bridges between the youth of her country and their U.S. counterparts.

“What I see (of Americans), I see in media,” Kassab said. “What we hear of people here back home is not what we see here. My program is meant to see what people really are. (Americans) are really very welcoming and generous. Amazing people.”

In the classroom, Assistant Professor of Spanish Wendell Smith said that the wider cultural perspective that international students bring into the classroom is invaluable. “They may want to contribute and talk about things that are not in the standard frame of reference that my other students are used to talking about in class,” Smith said. “The international students that I’ve had have been some of the most successful students in my classes. The students we’re getting seem to be academically top-notch.”

Smith also finds that international students often model good behavior in terms of study habits and, in the case of his classes, demonstrating the possibility of becoming fluent in another language, “which I think is a good example for our American students.”

After leaving the College, many of Wilson’s international students go on to prestigious graduate programs in the U.S. or abroad, and forge impressive careers in fields such as medicine and research. One example: Jing Luan ’12, of China, worked as a researcher at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia after graduation and is now enrolled in a M.D.-Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania. She hopes to work in genetic regulation research.

“We’ve got some real rock stars,” said Vice President for Student Development Mary Beth Williams. “They do really well when they’re here and they do really well when they graduate.”


How and why they come

Many of Wilson’s international students come to the College for a one-year abroad program—such as those from Korea’s Seoul Women’s University—or for a one-semester exchange like Sandy and Gonzalez. “Typically, they’re a pretty motivated group of people,” said Heil, herself a product of study abroad, which she participated in both in high school and college.

Wilson’s location, size and liberal arts curriculum are attractive to international students, according to Paul Miller, director of international student and scholar services. “Any number of students will tell me they want to be on the East Coast. They don’t necessarily want to be in a city, but they want to be near New York City and Washington, D.C., so they’ll look at a map.” International students also find their way to Wilson through word of mouth and college and athletics recruiting efforts.

Last fall, 34 students were officially enrolled in Wilson’s international student scholars program—the most in Miller’s 10 years with the College. After transfers, graduations and the arrival of several new students, the number for spring semester is 33—up from 19 students in 2010-11, according to Miller’s office. Miller said 17 of the 33 are four-year students.

Students in the international student scholar program represent 16 countries and the Palestinian Territories, according to Miller. Eight students are here for a study-abroad year through Seoul Women’s University. The College has five full-time students from Saudi Arabia, as well as students from Uganda, France, Tunisia, Mexico, Armenia, Vietnam, China, Brazil, Ghana, Ireland, Nepal, the Palestinian Territories, Panama, Indonesia and Uzbekistan.

Assistant Director of Admissions Michael Eaton, the College’s international admissions counselor, uses a variety of means—including websites, recruitment services, partnerships and social media—to connect with students, many of whom find Wilson through the Internet. Eaton traveled to the Middle East in spring 2015 with the U.S. Educational Group, where he visited high schools and met guidance counselors and students in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan. He is going to four cities in Canada this spring and the College is considering a trip to Latin America next year.

In other efforts to broaden its international reach, the College established ties last summer with the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in China through FriendlyPA, an economic development initiative aimed at cultivating ties with educational institutions abroad.

Athletics recruiting is playing an increasing role in attracting international students. Head men’s soccer coach Caleb Davis, who actively recruits international players for his team, put together a diverse group of students last fall for the inaugural men’s soccer team. Of the 18 players, seven were from foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jamaica, Ghana, Gambia and Australia. “They’re their own family,” Davis said. “They all act like brothers. They all pick on one another. I think that makes them feel comfortable here.”

Before they can be admitted into the international program, prospective students have to demonstrate a level of proficiency in English on such tests as TOEFL and IELTS (International English Language Testing System). “The intent is to ensure that they’re qualified,” Eaton said. “We want students who are going to be successful.”

Looking to the future, Vice President for Enrollment Mary Ann Naso says international student recruitment will be “very important” to the College. “We’re looking at decreasing demographics (among U.S. college-bound students) so we need to find the means to replace them,” she said.

International students on the Wilson campus have a positive effect that the College, including the global studies department, wants to see grow and develop further, according to Smith. “I would say our main goal is to internationalize the campus, in the sense of having what’s going on in the wider world be more on the consciousness, in the mind, of Wilson undergraduates across the board,” he said. “And that takes a long-term cultural change. Right now, the best thing we have to accomplish that is the international students on campus. They’re in a sense the beachhead for internationalizing the campus.”


Arriving on campus

After students are admitted, Miller and the Office of Student Development contact students to provide them with information about life at Wilson and help them coordinate travel. When the students arrive in the U.S., student development officials make arrangements to meet them at the airport and drive them to campus where, “I’m here to greet them,” said Miller, adding that that kind of personal attention differentiates Wilson from many other institutions.

Miller briefs the students on important safety information, including what to do if they become ill, how to navigate the U.S. healthcare system and how 911 works.  Once the new students are settled in, Miller leads a two-day orientation program to familiarize students with the campus. Orientation also includes the two things Miller says students are most concerned with: making banking arrangements and obtaining a cell phone and plan. The College even takes students shopping to make sure they have the appropriate clothing for the local climate. “Another major issue that we talk about is our immigration regulations—what they can and cannot do,” Miller said.

Most international students say the orientation is essential and that it provides time to get to know and bond with other internationals. “It was really helpful,” said Naeun Noh, a South Korean student here for one year from Seoul Women’s University.

Noh said students also learn about cultural differences, such as the importance at Wilson of regularly checking email.

Classroom culture here is also discussed, including time management. “That’s a major orientation topic. Time,” Miller said. “Americans live by the clock. Many countries don’t.”

After orientation, Miller takes the students on a two-day trip to the nation’s capital, where they explore Congress, the White House and other sites such as the Smithsonian Institution and Holocaust Museum. Miller gives them assignments and sends them on their way around the city.

“Invariably, students will come back to me and say, ‘Now I know that I’m in the United States—I stood in front of the White House,” said Miller. “They love taking their picture in front of the White House.”

“It was one of my loveliest days,” Kassab said of the experience.

As the students begin their first semester here, they go through a period of adjustment that can be challenging for some. Common issues include grappling with the English language, being far from family and adjusting to American food.

Sandy, who attends the State Islamic University of Lampung, had never been away from home before coming here in January. “The first month was the hardest part of my exchange experience,” said Sandy, who uses Skype to talk to his parents. Despite the early adjustments to the food and language, “I love and enjoy it here,” said Sandy.

Ghada Tafesh ’16, who is in her fourth year at Wilson on an AMIDEAST scholarship, recalls having a little trouble adjusting her first year, mainly with being homesick. But now, “I blend in pretty well.”

Her best friend is an American student she was paired with through the NeXXt Scholars program, Lindsey Sutton ’16. “We come in one package,” she said.

“I never imagined I’d be this close to friends and people who don’t speak my native language, people who don’t completely understand my culture,” Tafesh said of her Wilson friends. “We’re like siblings. It’s been definitely a blessing—all of it.”

The College has a fairly large group of Muslim students and for them, the religion’s restrictions on eating pork and the requirement to consume halal food—which is similar to kosher food in the Jewish faith—can be problematic. “In the dining hall, most of the time they serve bacon products or pork products, which I don’t eat at all," said Bassil Andijani ’18, a second-year student from Saudi Arabia who moved off campus this semester.

Tafesh sometimes prepares food from her homeland in the residence hall. “They love it,” she said of her American friends. “They even speak some Arabic words.”

A lot of international students are unaccustomed to actively participating in class, which is a requirement at Wilson. “In many countries, you sit and listen. You don’t dare talk to the professor,” Miller said. “Here you’re expected to question the professor. You’re expected to speak up. And that’s very difficult for many of our students to learn.”

Yet, “so much of our critical thinking is based on that exchange,” Heil said. “(International students) really appreciate the opportunity to work so closely with faculty—an opportunity they wouldn’t have in their home universities.”


Experiencing the American way of life

Most international students say they feel welcome and accepted at Wilson. Sometimes, however, cultural and language differences can be barriers to friendships.  “One of the principal goals of many international students when they come to the United States is to develop American friends,” Miller said.

The outgoing Andijani’s involvement in soccer has helped him forge close friendships with team members. “Soccer has its own language,” he said. “No one cares where you come from. You just play.”

Just as the internationals come to experience the American way of life and make friends here, their American counterparts can learn a lot from the international student presence on campus, according to Daniel Glazier ’18. “Personally, I find cultural differences and varying cultures interesting,” said Glazier, who is a work-study student in Miller’s office. “They can bring a different cultural perspective to a class.”

Glazier recalled a course where one classmate was from China and one from Japan. Through discussion, other students learned about historical conflicts between those two countries that most were unaware of, he said.

Sutton said she appreciates her international peers for a variety of reasons, including the way her own worldview has broadened. “I get to learn about a whole new culture and I get to learn a different way to think,” said Sutton, who lives with two international students. “They bring in new ideas, new thoughts and different experiences. I think it’s really important that we have international students. ”

At a recent town hall meeting on religious expression hosted by Williams, the current U.S. political climate’s impact on the College’s Muslim students was a topic of discussion, with Muslim and non-Muslim students sharing their feelings on an uncomfortable subject.  “I feel safer here than being outside,” Tafesh said. “My friends here know me as a person, not as a Muslim or a person wearing a scarf.”

Andijani and Kassab say the tenor of the Republican presidential campaign bothers them, but they understand—due to their experiences at Wilson—that not all Americans are anti-Muslim. “Personally, I think that religion is the last thing I would look at as far as who I would be friends with,” said Andijani.

Wilson provides two key programs that help international students feel at home and learn about American culture: the Friendly Families program (see sidebar) and the international student organization, the Muhibbah Club, which stages a popular annual, multicultural dinner with performances by international students, some of whom perform songs or dances—often in costume—that reflect their culture.

Through Friendly Family and experiences off-campus with friends’ families and connections, students learn about American culture in ways that they might not otherwise. Kassab spent a week with a Jewish family over Christmas break, who she asked to take her to their synagogue and another week with a Christian family, who took her to church. “That was amazing. What I discovered about Judaism and Christianity and Islam is, they’re very similar.

“This experience is really changing a lot in me,” Kassab continued. “It’s really opening my mind more.”

After graduation, many of Wilson’s international students maintain close ties with classmates, faculty, staff and Friendly Families, which speaks volumes about their experiences.

“If I had a chance to go back and do it over, I would not hesitate in attending Wilson College,” said Nikola Grafnetterova  ’10, a graduate from the Czech Republic now in a doctoral program at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi while working full time there as scholastic coordinator for student-athletes. “It was a life-changing experience.”

Published: May 12, 2016