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.”