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Orientation and other programs help international students adjust to college in the U.S.

August 27, 2003

MIDDLEBURY, Vt.-When Annelise Joseph, a junior at Middlebury College, arrived on campus from her native Trinidad two years ago, she was nervous.  "I was very dependent on my parents," said Joseph, who was pleased to be matched up with a local host family by Middlebury.  Joseph's fears decreased as an orientation program for international students familiarized her with the College.  She also received helpful advice from her host family, whose home continues to serve as a refuge from campus where she can relax and even just watch TV. 

Similar feelings of anxiety are not uncommon among international students, a group that totaled 582,996 people last year according to NAFSA, a Washington, D.C.-based association of international educators.

Three years ago, to ease the transition to college for its international students, Middlebury began offering new orientation and host family programs.  The four-day orientation program, which will take place August 28-31, immediately precedes the regular orientation for all new students.  It also offers international students everything from a hearty greeting at midnight, should they arrive late at the Burlington, Vt., airport, to information sessions about visa status, taxes, student employment and other issues. 

 "International students represent at least 10 percent of Middlebury's student body, which is roughly 2,350 students.  These students are a significant portion of each class and they have unique questions and issues pertaining to them.  This year there are 72 students from 44 countries in an incoming class of 582," said Tracy Himmel Isham, interim international student adviser and organizer of the program. 

On the first day of orientation, international students arrive in Middlebury after many hours?and sometimes days?of travel that can often include jet lag, homesickness and hours of coping with customs and immigration authorities in large chaotic airports.  The College sets up a welcome center on campus that is open from 11 a.m. until midnight, or, as the student orientation material promises, "until the last traveler arrives."  Students spend their second day completing paperwork and meeting other students, faculty and staff.  On the third day, students have time to enjoy the Vermont landscape off campus and to continue making new friends.  In the evening, there is a dinner where students are encouraged to dress in festive clothing from their home countries. 

Reflecting on her own experience as a new student, Jasmine Johnson, a junior at Middlebury who is from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, recalled, "It's just nice to have people available who are concerned about you and whether or not you're having any difficulties as you settle into new surroundings.  I wasn't used to so many people smiling at me and asking how I was doing."  This year, Johnson will participate in the orientation program again, but as a program assistant.  Students who serve in this position welcome the international students and answer many of their questions. 

Student Paul Otieno, who is from Kenya, arrived at Middlebury College in August 2001, exhausted from a two-day journey and the lengthy touch-and-go process of applying for a visa to the U.S. from Kenya, where the bombing of the U.S. embassy earlier that year had led to major delays in the visa application process.  Now a junior, Otieno works in the dean of students' office assisting with the orientation program for international students.  "It's very helpful to have an orientation before all the other new students arrive.  Once they come, the pace on campus speeds up.  Also, when they get here, some students feel anxious, but when they see the program assistants-many of whom are international students like themselves-as upperclassman who are confident and successful here, they know that everything will be fine," said Otieno.

This year for the first time, all international students must supply information to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System or SEVIS, the U.S. government's information system for tracking international students.  The program took effect on Jan. 30 this year, when all educational institutions that host international students were required to begin using it. 

The majority of the orientation activities for international students will end by August 31, but informal meetings on such topics as Middlebury's honor code and judicial process, and cultural diversity and assimilation will take place in September and October. 

Middlebury will continue to offer additional support to its international students throughout the year.  An annual "closet drive," held in early October, allows community members, fellow Middlebury students, faculty and staff to donate items, such as warm clothing and blankets, to international students who may not be prepared for Vermont's cold winter weather.  Host families continue to interact with their students all year round as well.  The Middlebury College International Students' Organization (ISO) holds events throughout the academic year, from an annual culture show and an academic symposium to social activities.  The ISO also provides a handbook that is mailed to all new international students the summer before they arrive on campus with advice that includes a reminder to reserve a flight to Burlington, Vt.-not Burlington, Iowa, as one student once did. 

Dates and Facts Regarding the 2003-2004 Academic Year at Middlebury College:

International students orientation:  Aug. 28-31

Fall orientation for all first-year students:  Aug. 31-Sept. 7

Fall term classes begin:  Sept. 8

Size of the class of 2007:  582

Number of international students in the class of 2007: 72  (approximately 12 percent of the class)

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