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Making Room for the Nations in Happy Valley

by on August 23, 2019 11:25 AM

I was born and raised in the shadow of Penn State, one of those people who graduated twice in Rec Hall—in 1970 from State High and in 1974 from PSU. I simply can’t remember a time when I didn’t hum along to “Fight on State” or cheer for the guys in those simple blue and white football uniforms.

Though I’ve always loved everything Nittany, certain Penn State endeavors are especially impressive to me. THON is at the top of my list—nothing could be more inspirational than a student-led effort to fight pediatric cancer.  Next is Cael Sanderson’s wrestling program (eight national titles in the last nine years) and then the magnificent ice cream produced by Berkey Creamery. 

At this point, I must admit my list begins predictably.  But my fourth choice is generally unknown and unappreciated: the International Student Orientation program is nothing short of amazing, a success story that few Americans get to behold.

Somehow, at the start of each semester, Penn State’s Office of Global Programs turns new internationals into bona fide Penn Staters, welcoming them into the school’s melting pot of nations without letting them melt down. It’s more than impressive; it truly is amazing. Imagine if you were faced with the challenge of greeting more than a thousand new international students from scores of nations, answering their myriad of questions and giving them a sense of belonging—all in a couple days.

A SINCERE WELCOME

“It is a huge task,” acknowledges Richard Spicer, PSU’s student engagement coordinator and the man who holds the reins for ISO. “And it is rewarding to be the first faces that these students get to see after they arrive at Penn State.”  

Adds Mel White, the university’s associate director for global operations and learning, “We put our hearts and souls into these days of orientation. We want to really welcome international students to Penn State; to make them feel they have a place here and that they’ve earned their place.” 

Just to welcome any segment of 1,250 new students to campus would be a challenge. But how in the world can Global Programs meet the needs of so many incoming internationals from every imaginable culture? Especially when some arrive with questions about medical insurance and others can’t find the HUB? And when some feel homesick while others are afraid of everything from bugs to bears?

Caroline Richards is an American undergraduate student who serves as a student coordinator for ISO. Having lived in three Asian countries for a total of seven years, she is sensitive to the adjustment struggles of these students. “It’s a little overwhelming at first,” she says. “They’re jet-lagged, excited, a little apprehensive about where to go.”


Richard Spicer (dark shirt) and Nick Ehling, an orientation student coordinator, offer answers to a myriad of questions at their booth in the HUB. Photo by Bill Horlacher

WHO IS JAMES FRANKLIN?

I personally spoke with at least a dozen international students who arrived here in mid-August, and I observed all that Caroline mentioned. Each of the students was dealing with some mixture of fear, confusion and anticipation, although one incoming freshman from India left me with a particularly vivid memory. 

I met Shravan Narayan in the HUB, and I marveled over the difference between his home city of Chennai, (population over 10 million), and his new home of State College (population not very much). Having arrived here less than 24 hours before I met him, Shravan exuded warmth and enthusiasm. But he also had a lot to learn about Happy Valley.  When I asked him if he had ever heard of a man named James Franklin, he did his best to answer. “I think he’s a person who has a college named for him here at Penn State,” said Shravan. “Maybe the James Franklin College of Business?” 

Don’t worry about Shravan. He’s bright and he’s personable, and by now, a lot of his knowledge gaps have been filled by International Student Orientation.


Shravan Narayan brought some outstanding qualities to Penn State, regardless of his football knowledge. Photo by Bill Horlacher

HOW DOES IT WORK?

So exactly how does this ISO program meet the checkerboard of needs represented by each semester’s crop of new international students?

It all starts with some basic organization: the 550 graduate students who arrived this month were divided into two groups; the 700 new undergraduates were split into four groups. Each group’s activities were scheduled within a two- to three-day window between Aug. 13 and Aug. 22.   

Then, to provide instant friendships and a cross-cultural challenge, those larger groups were broken down into small bands of approximately 20. Says White, “We put them into small cohorts with an orientation leader who is typically, but not always, an international student who’s already been through the process. The best friends they make here are often those from their two and a half days of orientation. They really bond together as a group, despite their different countries and backgrounds. That shapes the environment we want, an environment where everyone is welcome and where we champion diversity and inclusion.” 

Woohee Byun, a junior from Seoul, South Korea served as one of the orientation leaders earlier this month. And she says that ISO continues to serve its purpose even after the official program has been completed.

“There are a lot of connections between the orientation leaders and the students,” she explains. “They (the students) still ask questions through GroupMe—what classes to take, how to organize their schedules, what downtown restaurants to choose.”

Strangely enough, these small groups are named for National Football League teams. Not only does this labeling system offer an introduction to American culture, but it avoids the divisive passions that might be created by the use of international soccer clubs or American college football teams. No internationals are offended by being called Titans, Dolphins or Broncos, but what if they had to tell their new American friends that they were identified as Buckeyes or Panthers?


Three orientation leaders (green shirts) facilitate connections in a small group session. Photo by Bill Horlacher

NUTS AND BOLTS  

Variety is the byword for ISO content. At various points, students hear presentations on nuts and bolts issues like academic integrity, medical insurance or U.S. immigration laws and policies. At other times, they may be touring campus or attending a reception with President Eric Barron on the Old Main Lawn. 

Perhaps the sweetest synergy of information and fun—for both graduate students and undergrads—takes place during a session called, “State College: A Whole New World.” I heard White give this presentation to a large group of undergrads, and I also heard it presented to graduate students by Jennifer Campbell, director of global operations and learning.

White and Campbell both engaged their audiences masterfully in well-honed hour-long segments. Each offered words of inspiration, vignettes from Penn State’s history and a “Jeopardy”-style game that allowed them to dispense answers to questions like, “What is Happy Valley?” 


Mel White, associate director for global operations and learning, applauds a correct answer during an ISO trivia game. Photo by Bill Horlacher

RIDING CAMELS?

A highlight of White’s session occurred when he helped undergrads to anticipate typical American misimpressions of their homelands. Noting that Brazilian students may be asked about their Spanish language (they speak Portuguese) or that Saudis might be asked about riding camels (not suited to modern cities like Jeddah or Riyadh), the Penn State leader suggested a positive perspective. “Look at this as a chance for you to be an ambassador for your country,” he said.  

Campbell led her group of grad students in the familiar “We Are… Penn State” cheer, and she explained why her listeners might not want to wear red while sitting in the student section at Beaver Stadium. 

But first, the Global Programs executive added some statistical reasons why the internationals can be proud of their new university—an antidote to any discouragement they felt from being so far from home. She drew an “ahh” of surprise when she mentioned that Penn State employs 17,000 faculty and staff members. She elicited strong applause when she noted that THON has raised $157 million throughout its long battle with cancer. And she drew more applause by pointing out that Penn State ranks in the top 1% of all universities worldwide and is number two (trailing Stanford) in America’s production of CEO’s.

Campbell made it clear that her praise of Penn State was actually designed as a compliment to her listeners. Noting that Penn State has only 7,000 internationals at the University Park campus, she stressed the major accomplishment already made by these students in being admitted to such a strong institution.  

“When I said congratulations to you, I meant it,” Campbell noted. “It is your destiny to contribute to the knowledge of this world. We’re a top 1% institution, and you’re sitting in this chair. So I want you to think about all the people who are not. It is your destiny to contribute to the knowledge of this world.”

MEETING THE NEEDS

So just how well did ISO meet the needs of new international students? My quick cross-section of interviews told me the results were good, especially with respect to practical concerns:

  • Ted Gan, a Canadian who is pursuing a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, mentioned several benefits from his orientation experience. “Before I came here,” he said, “I did my homework (online), but even when you do that, there’s a lot you don’t understand. They helped me with things, for example understanding health insurance. And I met a lot of people from around the world.” 

  • Nihal Mehta, a new Indian Ph.D. student in economics, offered comments that were similar to Gan’s. He said he was encouraged by opportunities to connect with new friends and by the information he gained on practical matters like health insurance. “Those might be mundane things,” he admitted, “but for someone who is new here, the information gives you a sort of comfort.”

  • Thomas Sontag, a Brazilian freshman in microbiology, admitted he was “overwhelmed” by all the information he heard during ISO. “There was so much to learn in a little time,” he said.  But he also added, “I was impressed by how helpful people were.”

But of all the students I met, none were nearly as candid as Milton Amaya, a Columbian who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Spanish. Asked about his time during International Student Orientation, Amaya began by saying, “It started this morning, and I was completely lost. But I had an opportunity to talk with the (staff) and they helped me right away—how to open my bank account, get a U.S. phone and get access to the Internet. Yesterday, I felt terrible. Today is much better.”


Milton Amaya got answers to key questions and quickly felt at home in Happy Valley. Photo by Bill Horlacher



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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