Orientation for international students is a remedy for homesickness

Orientation for international students is a remedy for homesickness

Sophomore Mayim Stith, freshman Kwamboka Onchonga, junior Ann Kooro, and junior Amber Crump gathered with other stu­dents and faculty for an inter­na­tional stu­dents’ ori­en­tation Monday in the Grewcock Student Union Formal Lounge

When senior Ema Karakoleva moved to Hillsdale from Bul­garia, ori­en­tation didn’t just involve nav­i­gating class­rooms and meeting the deans. It meant getting used to American food, small talk, and even a dif­ferent style of door knob.  

“Every­thing is dif­ferent,” Karakoleva said. “Freshman year was very stressful.”

This year, Karakoleva and sophomore Ritah Ogayo — who came to Hillsdale from Nairobi, Kenya — decided to help this year’s five incoming inter­na­tional stu­dents bypass some stress by orga­nizing an ori­en­tation just for them. Held in the Grewcock Student Union’s Formal Lounge on Monday, the ori­en­tation was the first of its kind stu­dents and faculty members could remember hap­pening at Hillsdale.

“I thought, ‘I don’t want anyone else to go through this,’” said Ogayo, noting that cul­tural dif­fer­ences and prac­tical matters con­tributed to anxiety and lone­liness during her first semester. “I’d be missing out because no one talked to me about college culture and American culture. That will affect a student men­tally and phys­i­cally.”

Although Karakoleva had the idea for the ori­en­tation last year, Ogayo acted on it this summer while working for the Hillsdale College Contact Center. She talked to college faculty, researched inter­na­tional student pro­grams at other col­leges, and reached out to inter­na­tional stu­dents at Hillsdale — this year, there are 20 from 11 coun­tries — to come up with a program for the ori­en­tation.

“Little tips here and there make every­thing go so much more smoothly,” said Karakoleva, who pre­sented a Pow­er­Point explaining every­thing from how to obtain a driver’s license and social security number to where to go for coun­seling and what food and weather stu­dents can expect.

Hillsdale College nurse Carol Drews spoke about food and nutrition, and Director of Health Ser­vices Brock Lutz talked about mental health and where to go for help.

Most inter­na­tional stu­dents deal with home­sickness and lone­liness, Ogayo said. Karakoleva — an out­going person and pres­ident of the Inter­na­tional Club — said she retreated to her bed during her freshman year and would only talk with friends back home. In Bul­garia, she said, no one does small talk — so she didn’t feel com­fortable approaching people to strike up a con­ver­sation. And speaking with an accent can dis­courage stu­dents from talking in class or with friends, Ogayo said.

“I had a very lonely freshman year,” Karakoleva said. “I was con­cerned about credits and what classes to take. You have to worry where you’re going to live when they close the dorms.”

Lutz, who talked about coun­seling ser­vices and ways for stu­dents to connect with fam­ilies in the com­munity, said the ori­en­tation was an excellent way for stu­dents to be pre­pared for unex­pected chal­lenges.

“You’re out of your country and culture, and it can be a very dif­ficult tran­sition,” he said. “Because of that, you can feel anxious or iso­lated or con­fused. The ori­en­tation gave inter­na­tional stu­dents resources on campus.”

Stu­dents from abroad don’t struggle with lone­liness because American stu­dents don’t care, Karakoleva and Ogayo clar­ified — they just often don’t know what inter­na­tional stu­dents are dealing with.

“You don’t know how to help someone if you don’t know what their dif­fi­culties are,” Karakoleva said.

American stu­dents can show they care by asking about inter­na­tional stu­dents’ home cul­tures and how they’re doing, said Pro­fessor of Spanish Carmen Wyatt-Hayes, a faculty adviser for the Inter­na­tional Club.

Sherri Rose, assistant pro­fessor of French who also advises the club, pointed out American stu­dents have a lot to gain from getting to know inter­na­tional stu­dents.

“Inter­na­tional stu­dents bring a wealth of diversity to campus,” she said in an email. “They bring with them the lan­guages and cul­tures of their home­lands. This might come to light in the food they cook in their dorm, what music they like to dance to, or how they react to a current event in the news.”

Lutz con­nected the presence of diversity with an oppor­tunity to work toward the college’s mission.

“In our culture, diversity is a chal­lenging concept — what it means, whether it should be a goal,” he said, noting that at Hillsdale, diversity has a purpose: finding truth. “The more per­spec­tives you have, the better.”

Just as encoun­tering American culture changed her per­spective, Karakoleva said, inter­acting with exchange stu­dents can help Amer­icans expand their under­standing of the world.

“We’re very inter­esting, and we have a lot to show,” she said. “If you hang out with people from dif­ferent places, you’d be very sur­prised that they have cool stories to tell. We want people to be a little more inter­ested.”