As Parents’ Weekend approaches, students anticipate exchanging hugs with family members on the Farm and easing some of the homesickness that might have set in since winter break. However, the middle of the academic year can be tougher for international students, who after the bustle of activity that came with International Student Orientation (ISO) in the fall, experience a slump in international community-building programming.
John Pearson, director of Bechtel International Center, the same center that organizes ISO, identified more sustained yearlong programming as “an area where Bechtel has got to start playing a bigger role.”
“I think we need to step in next year and start offering social and programmatic events,” Pearson said.
Every year since 1985, a small group of freshmen descends upon the Farm in early September, just days before NSO begins, to begin ISO, three and half days of programming organized specifically for Stanford’s 493 international undergraduates. ISO is filled with beach trips and scavenger hunts as well as more practical activities, such as information sessions on immigration and financial aid for internationals.
Fresh-faced, overwhelmed and full of questions, the freshmen internationals take their multicolored passports at the start of ISO to Bechtel International Center, an enclave near Tresidder Union, to be introduced to Stanford, where internationals make up 7.1 percent of the undergraduate student body.
These students are much like their fellow freshman, with the exception of one subtle difference: their home address doesn’t come with a state name and zip code.
After ISO, students diffuse into the general population and must learn to navigate both Stanford and America at the same time.
“It’s very different being an international student,” said Isabella Sanchez ’14. “Most of the people are very different from who you are, and the international community is not that big.”
The vast majority of internationals at Stanford, 86 percent, are graduate students.
“Compared to other colleges, 493 is a pretty decent number,” said Brett Wines ’12, 2010 ISO Coordinator. “But if you think about it, it’s actually not very many.”
This number does not include students with dual citizenship, students with U.S. citizenship who studied overseas or students who are green card holders.
According to Pearson, international students face a set of unique challenges.
“The number one challenge is English,” he said. “It’s not that we assume international undergraduates can’t speak English; it’s the use of English 24 hours a day.”
For other students, the pace of the quarter system and classroom culture can be a source of anxiety for students accustomed to other teaching methods.
“It was difficult adjusting to the culture…sometimes I feel like I don’t get them [American students]. We value different things,” Sanchez said.
Bechtel tries to address students concerns like these during ISO, but also provides other forms of sustained support throughout the rest of the year, such as special outreach regarding tax issues, campus work or winter break housing and a special fund to help with winter break programs for undergraduates who don’t go home.
“A lot of offices on campus are aware of the fact that adjustment is a special issue for internationals,” Pearson said. “The dorm communities ResEd [Residential Education] creates, especially for freshmen, help tremendously.”
One of the main goals of ISO is to give internationals a chance to become acquainted with each other in a more low-key setting before the flurry of NSO begins.
“It is completely student-run by people who know what internationals feel, because they’re the ones who know how hard it is to overcome jetlag, how hard it is to come to a country where you don’t know anybody,” said Aki Kobashi’12, an ISO 2010 Coordinator.
Many international students credit ISO for giving them opportunities to start meeting other students the very first day they set foot on campus, which might also be their first day in the United States.
“I think it’s good that we meet both the internationals at ISO and our dorm,” said Valeria Fedyk ’14. “I made my first friends at ISO, and they’re still some of my best friends.”
Bechtel’s main focus, especially since 9/11, is to assist students with regulatory issues, such as issuing visas and maintaining legal status.
One downside of having an international status, however, is the restrictions one might face when trying to find jobs and internships.
“Can they do it?” Pearson asked. “Yes. [But] can they do it as easily as American students? No…and this can affect the Stanford experience.”
Meanwhile, these 493 representatives from around the world–from the Middle East to the Pacific Basin to Northern Europe–are finding their place within a new country and a new school, all the while adding their experiences to a welcoming student body.
“This is such a diverse campus,” Pearson said, “and international students are a very important part of it.”