A welcoming presence

Steiner-Lang helps international students, faculty and staff feel at home at WUSTL

Though Kathy Steiner-Lang doesn’t travel much, she gets to experience many of the world’s cultures on a daily basis.

Kathy Steiner-Lang (left), assistant vice chancellor and director of the Office for International Students and Scholars, meets with Dah-Eun Chung, a freshman biology major in Arts & Sciences. “Every day, I get to deal with so many different kinds of people,” Steiner-Lang says. “In addition to the international students and scholars, there are lots of great people who work here. And our students are amazing. It’s so rewarding to watch them grow from freshman year to graduation.”

Steiner-Lang directs the Office for International Students and Scholars. The mission of the office is to provide social, cultural and academic support; English-language instruction; and information on governmental regulations to all international members of the WUSTL community. It also facilitates cross-cultural understanding within the University and the St. Louis metropolitan area.

Steiner-Lang, assistant vice chancellor, and her office provide services for undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral students and faculty and staff members.

Not bad for a woman who grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and didn’t even leave the state until after enrolling in college.

International enrollment has skyrocketed during Steiner-Lang’s tenure. While 38 first-year students were from other countries in 1992-93, students and faculty now come from more than 125 countries around the world, and nearly 35 percent of freshmen are multicultural or international students. There are 1,400 inter-national students at the University and around the same number of faculty members and postdoctoral fellows.

“We are indeed fortunate to have Kathy leading our Office for International Students and Scholars,” says Karen Levin Coburn, senior consultant in residence and Steiner-Lang’s supervisor for 17 years. “A nationally recognized leader in her field, she is truly one of the University’s treasures.

“Kathy and her staff make it possible for students and scholars from all over the world to become an integral part of our community,” Coburn says. “Kathy not only helps international students and scholars navigate the ins and outs of the world of visas and immigration services, she has also created an innovative series of programs and services that have transformed the international student experience.”

Wisconsin, then the world

Steiner-Lang’s interest in international studies began early in her life.

“I remember hearing an exchange student speak at my grade school and thinking it was incredibly exciting,” she says.

Born in Sheboygan, Wis., Steiner-Lang attended Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., where she majored in sociology. Initially a Spanish major, she studied in Mexico for a semester and did an exchange program in Italy for six months following her graduation in 1977.

Upon her return to the United States, she began applying to master of social work programs and was accepted at Washington University. She was offered an internship in the International Office, working on programs for international students and study abroad students.

Needing to complete her practicum experience, Steiner-Lang left WUSTL in 1981 for a job at a county hospital in Torrance, Calif., where she was employed as a medical social worker.

(Clockwise from left) Kathy Steiner-Lang; husband, Douglas Lang; and daughter, Nina Lang.

But after attending a conference of the Association of International Educators, her passion for international students reemerged. Through a recruiter at the conference, Steiner-Lang was able to land a job in the international office of the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

“I worked there for four years and really enjoyed it,” she says. “Culturally, it was fascinating, and I learned a lot.”

Growing tired of the intensely hot and humid summers, Steiner-Lang left in March 1986 for the relative cool of St. Louis and another job in the International Office as student adviser. A few months later, she was asked to be director. She has been ever since.

Organizer and adviser

Steiner-Lang says the biggest part of her job is the hiring and supervision of staff. The Office of International Students and Scholars, located in Stix International House, employs nearly 15 staff members. There is also a satellite office at the School of Medicine.

The international office acts as liaison with U.S. government agencies concerning visa and immigration matters for all international students and scholars at the University. The office advises departments on the various visa application procedures necessary to bring an international scholar to the University.

After students arrive in the United States, the office assists them and accompanying family members with settling in, employment permission, validating their arrival with immigration, maintaining their visa status and many other items.

The office also organizes the Speak English With Us, Host Family and Be Our Guest programs, meant to help acclimate international students and scholars to life and culture in the United States.

In addition to those duties, Steiner-Lang serves as an academic adviser in Arts & Sciences, which has helped her job performance.

“I feel like advising allows me to stay in better touch with students and to see them in a different way,” Steiner-Lang says. “A lot of what I discuss in international student orientation each year has been molded by what I hear from my advisees, some of whom are American students.”

Steiner-Lang says her job has changed dramatically over the years.

“When I started here in 1986, we had a dummy terminal in a back office that we could use to look up students,” she says. “There were no easily accessible databases or other technology.”

Now all international students are tracked through a government program called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), managed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Though governmental tracking of international students began after the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-1981, efforts resumed in earnest in the 1990s following the 1993 car-bombing incident at the World Trade Center in New York City.

Kathy Steiner-Lang

Title: Assistant vice chancellor and director of the Office for International Students and Scholars

Family: Husband, Douglas Lang, and daughter, Nina Lang, 14

Hobbies: Reading, walking and yoga

An effective system for governmental tracking of students was quickly pushed through following Sept. 11, 2001, and SEVIS was born.

Steiner-Lang and her staff spend much of their time making sure student information is correct and updated as well as keeping up with ever-changing rules and regulations.

A majority of international students and scholars at the University are from Asian countries. Most come from China, India and Taiwan, respectively. There also are many undergraduate students from Korea. All told, there are more than 125 countries represented on the Danforth and Medical campuses.

“That’s nearly double the number from when I started here,” Steiner-Lang says. “I think it’s a great reflection of the University’s efforts to position itself as a global leader. Students and scholars from around the world are taking notice. It provides us with such a diverse and strong community.”

Though it’s a bit too early to tell how the current worldwide economic crisis will affect international enrollment, Steiner-Lang says her office has started fielding more requests for financial aid.

“We’ll know more in the fall, but I’m not sure exactly how our numbers will be affected,” she says. “In other parts of the world, parents save for their children’s college education in a way that we do not here. They start putting money aside the moment the child is born. They want to send their children to a top-notch school, oftentimes in America.”

‘So rewarding’

Steiner-Lang says she loves working at WUSTL.

“Every day, I get to deal with so many different kinds of people,” she says. “In addition to the international students and scholars, there are lots of great people who work here. And our students are amazing. It’s so rewarding to watch them grow from freshman year to graduation. I really enjoy hearing about all the great things WUSTL students accomplish after they leave here.”

Steiner-Lang and her family — husband, Douglas Lang, and 14-year-old daughter, Nina Lang — like living near the University and taking advantage of programs, lectures and performances at Edison Theatre.

An avid reader, Steiner-Lang enjoys novels. She has been practicing yoga for more than 20 years and also likes walking and swimming.

And while she is not fluent in any foreign languages, her commitment to her job and to the students and scholars she serves needs no translation.

“Kathy has an incredible ability to stay calm and provide steady leadership during times of crisis,” Coburn says. “She is soft-spoken and clear, caring and direct. She is easily approachable, and students, faculty and staff turn to her for information, guidance and support. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work closely with her for so many years.”