One of the first people you will meet as a student at Gonzaga University is actually a Gonzaga alum: James Vair, student services advisor for Gonzaga Global, graduated from Gonzaga in 2019. As an alumnus, he can offer students an insider’s perspective on the best ways to connect and engage with Gonzaga and the greater Spokane community.
The next person you are likely to meet is Liliya Ambartsumyan, Gonzaga Global’s managing director. Ambartsumyan is dedicated to empowering students and helping them chart pathways to success, and is planning future programming to keep students engaged and growing. She is passionate about breaking down barriers so all students can receive a quality education.
“I am an ardent advocate for international higher education,” explains Ambartsumyan. “A quality education correlates directly with quality of life post-graduation. Being one of the pillars of support, ensuring students are able to participate in the educational system to better their lives, is what makes my day-to-day rewarding.”
That support begins before you even arrive on campus.
The First Gonzaga Global Cohort
Fall 2021 was not just the first Gonzaga Global cohort for Ambartsumyan and Vair, but the first Gonzaga Global cohort ever.
Ambartsumyan and Vair have been working nonstop since August to ensure Gonzaga Global students have been supported from the moment they decided to attend.
“We connect with admitted students so they understand the next steps. James has a virtual meeting with them so students know what to expect and who will be there when they arrive,” begins Ambartsumyan.
“We communicate arrival information, bring them to the residence halls, and help them move in,” continues Vair.
“Whether students arrive at midnight, 1 a.m., or 7 a.m., we ensure they have the highest level of care and support from the second they land at Spokane International Airport,” adds Ambartsumyan. After all, there is perhaps no better feeling than arriving on campus after a long flight and having a room with a cozy bed made up and waiting for you.
“Being able to establish a connection before students arrive allows us to build on those ties as soon as they arrive on campus,” she says.
During orientation, students receive relevant information that is critical to their success, including communicating academic integrity expectations and ensuring they know the opportunities available through Career Services.
They also bring students to the local supermarket so students feel comfortable navigating the oversized American grocery stores, as well as teach students how they can open a bank account.
“I also try to create small moments of individual connection,” says Vair. “I try to learn names and faces in the first week. If I know a student’s name, and that student knows that I know their name, then they feel comfortable coming to me with any issues they have.”
Trust and comfort are key to creating a seamless transition to a new culture, city, and campus.
What You Can Expect from Gonzaga Global
Vair is the first point of contact, and connects with students via WhatsApp or any number of preferred communication methods to answer their questions. Gonzaga Global students also receive a weekly email with upcoming events, such as Tuesday Tea Time where students can get a cup of tea and check in with Vair.
“The most rewarding moments are when I am sitting in my office and students come in, flop down on the chairs, and say ‘wán,’ which means play, have fun,” he says. “I love that students feel comfortable enough to tell me about their day.” He also hosts more structured conversations on Fridays.
A fluent Mandarin speaker, James is also TESOL-certified. Prior to graduation, he worked in Residence Life and the Center of Global Engagement at Gonzaga.
Whether it is figuring out driver’s licenses or how to change dorms, Vair helps students with any challenges that arise from being in a new place. He is also busy planning events for students to get familiar with American and Gonzaga culture, like learning about Halloween and how Americans celebrate the day. In Fall 2021, a Gonzaga Global group went to a local farm for pumpkin picking and to enjoy huckleberry doughnuts.
“It is about creating a feeling of belonging and connectedness to the Gonzaga community and the great Spokane community,” Vair explains.
Part of that includes introducing students to Gonzaga traditions. “We are big in basketball,” James says, referring to Gonzaga’s top-ranked men’s team. He explains to international students that the school’s mascot is a bulldog and the stadium is referred to as the kennel.
Every year, there is a rally to get students pumped up and excited to kick off the season. Vair has made it a point to teach first-year students how to cheer for Gonzaga. “The whole building shakes with students jumping and doing cheers,” he says.
Beyond the entertaining aspects of life on campus, Ambartsumyan and Vair also support students during more challenging times. “If a student is struggling, we have the resources to support them,” she stresses. Challenges are not always academic, Ambartsumyan points out. It may be helping students communicate with faculty within a Western education system.
Or it may be a health emergency. “One student fell and broke their arm,” Ambartsumyan recalls. “We reassured the student that their health care covered emergency room services and told them to focus on their studies” while they recovered.
But Ambartsumyan also points out that Gonzaga Global has the resources to challenge top performers to achieve even greater things. “Ultimately, it is knowing they have the support structure to be successful.”
She has observed first-hand how welcoming the Gonzaga culture is and how invested staff, faculty, and peers are in each individual student’s success. “There are processes in place to ensure there is a personal touch to every student service.”
Ambartsumyan recalls during orientation how students observed that there were no rice options among the dishes in the dining hall. By coincidence, the person who oversees the entire dining services operations happened to be there. “I casually mentioned that there was no rice option. The next day, there was,” says Ambartsumyan, stressing that the change happened immediately.
Vair shares a phrase that captures this: “Zags help Zags.” It captures what happens on campus on a daily basis. “Gonzaga students always hold the door for each other, so sometimes there are long pauses when [you are] 20 steps away and someone is still holding the door for you.”
It is not surprising when one of the school’s guiding themes is “cura personalis,” which is Latin for care of the whole person.
“My best advice to students is to come in with an open mind, to be flexible and take advantage of as many opportunities as possible,” Vair says.
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