US universities have made incredible strides this past year to create safe and welcoming environments for international students. We spoke to campus leaders at several Shorelight universities to get stories of about 2020 – stories of creativity, innovation, and resilience from our international students and staff — and why they’re excited for what’s to come.
Looking Back – Spring 2020
“When the campus first closed due to the COVID outbreak in Spring 2020, the campus team delivered masks and care packages to all Accelerator students in residence halls and off campus,” says Sharmeen Ahsan-Bracciale, managing director, International Accelerator at American University. “I also supplied extra masks to the American University Housing and Residence Life team, as well as the IAP campus team at a time when the country faced a national mask shortage.”
“Because many students were concerned with leaving their homes during this time and relied on delivery services, Auburn Global created nine different meal plan options that would deliver lunches and dinners up to 10 times a week,” says Sean Busenlener, managing director, Auburn Global. “The team created care packages and delivered them to the students’ apartments to comfort them and let them know they are not alone.” Auburn Global also worked with a cleaning service to provide additional cleaning to students who wanted it, and coordinated COVID testing and quarantine assistance for new students arriving in fall and spring.
“The University of Utah signed a partnership with the American Collegiate Live program in order to deliver immersive teaching experience to international students studying abroad,” says Everton Araujo, Utah Global Managing Director. “The program had nearly 200 students enrolled and they were able to initiate their college career from the comfort of their homes.” Araujo notes the university tutoring center moved to fully online appointments and extended service times to serve students studying in multiple time zones.
For students who couldn’t get to Auburn Global, “we worked with the university to offer virtual start options in the middle of both fall and spring to allow more access,” says Busenlener. “We also started those classes at 5 am CST because it better fit the students’ time.”
Offering Support, Fun — and Mental Health
Auburn Global “maintained the same level of support through virtual student advising, [including] starting a daily Academic Service Hour to allow students to bring academic concerns forward,” says Busenlener. The team also “hosted virtual events for students to gather and still have an opportunity to socialize.”
“As students were forced to remain at home or in their dorms the International Student Services office started conducting group mental health sessions,” says Araujo. “Students were able to participate in yoga sessions and learn other meditation techniques to help them cope with the loneliness of the the pandemic.”
“We accomplished tremendous strides towards creating an inclusive and supportive student experience virtually,” says Chelsea Wells, director of International Scholar & Student Services, University of Utah. “As most of our student programming was done in person prior to COVID, we had to rethink how to create similar experiences in a virtual format, while keeping students engaged. To accomplish this, we turned to our students for feedback and ideas. We wanted to hear what formats would be fun and engaging for them, and also to help teach us about newer types of technological platforms that may be useful.”
As a result, Utah hosted regular international trivia nights on Friday nights with trivia games and prizes, biweekly video game nights, monthly cooking tutorials (where students taught how to cook traditional dishes from their home countries), Zoom dance parties, and more, says Wells. “For many of these events, we also created physical kits that students could pick up from the Student Union, including candy, U of U merchandise, pamphlets detailing the activity and providing additional context, as well as educational brochures about available University Support Services.”
American University also hosted virtual events, including yoga and karaoke nights, to foster community and togetherness.
Going Above and Beyond
Regular check-ins led to problem-solving, too: As the semester progressed, our teams sometimes had to get creative to address student concerns.
“[One] IAP student, who remained in the United States during the COVID pandemic, was reaching the end of his planned duration in program housing in August of 2020, and was unable to depart the country,” says Ahsan-Bracciale. “Because he had been living off campus in IAP program housing, he was not eligible to occupy the emergency on-campus beds, which were reserved strictly for continuing on-campus emergency residents. Despite this, IAP leadership was able to negotiate a special exception to this policy on behalf of our international student with the emergency housing committee and secure him safe on-campus accommodations for the Fall 2020 semester.”
“In February, we had a student from Myanmar contact our office seeking help,” says Wells. Her family’s tourism business had been hit hard by COVID-19 and political unrest had also impacted her financing. The team immediately went to work to find alternative funding sources so the student could stay enrolled — and secured an emergency grant from the ISSS Office and additional monies from other departments.
“I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from everyone on campus — everyone working together, dropping whatever they were doing, to quickly respond and find whatever resources were available to assist this student,” says Wells.
“Summer at American will be all virtual, so it’s a new ‘business as usual!’” says Ahsan-Bracciale. “Typically, summer classes do not begin until 10 am Washington, DC, time. This summer, classes will begin as early as 7:30 am for IAP students, a change advocated and initiated by IAP staff.”
For fall, American University has “expanded in-person classes in the sciences, visual and performing arts, media studies, and select other areas, and plans to significantly increase the number of in-person classes,” says Ahsan-Bracciale. “In addition, the university has increased both in-person co-curricular activity and virtual engagements, including student-faculty meetings, wellness activities, and exploring local DC spaces and interests. Additional buildings and campus spaces are available for studying and small group meetings. Since March, the American community has learned a lot and made many changes and updates, including stronger IT support, [and] enhancements to the Canvas and Blackboard systems.”
“The University of Utah is ready to support you in whichever way you prefer,” says Araujo. “For students wanting to begin classes virtually, we have a fully immersive digital classroom experience. If you’re ready to come to campus, we have a fun and safe campus community ready to welcome you!”
“Don’t delay your studies,” says Busenlener. “Auburn will be hosting both in person and virtual start options to allow for students to get to campus as soon as possible. Acceptance letters and I-20s that have been issued are still valid and we are here to support each of them as they navigate these unique and challenging times.”
“In spite of the recent challenges, the university community has come out strong and now, more than ever, values its students,” says Ahsan-Bracciale. “We welcome you with open arms!”
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