Left to right, freshman Louisa Lu, Jason Marquart of the Office of International Students and Scholars, and freshman Ray Su visit the Gateway Arch as part of the Fall 2013 Explore Campus and Community Program for incoming international students. Photo by Whitney Curtis/WUSTL Photos
They come from different countries, speak different languages, study different disciplines. But they all need pillows.
“There’s only so much you can bring in two suitcases,” said international student Fiona Wu.
Wu is one of the many student volunteers at the Office of International Students and Scholars helping new students prepare for life on campus. Last week, Wu and other Explore Leaders greeted new students to the South 40, helped them open checking accounts and escorted them to Target to buy pillows, shampoo, blankets, detergent and kettles. Another popular destination: the AT&T store at the Saint Louis Galleria. Wu made so many trips there, the staff came to know her.
“You were here yesterday. You must really like us,” joked one clerk as Wu helped a new student identify the coins in her wallet.
Before classes start, the OISS will assist 250 undergraduates and 600 graduate students. They will join an international student population of 2,000 students from some 85 nations, said Kathy Steiner-Lang, assistant vice chancellor and director of the Office of International Students and Scholars. Many international students have never traveled to America before; even fewer visited Washington University before enrolling.
“So there is a lot to figure out,” said Steiner-Lang. “The students are getting over jet lag. They are learning what it means to be at a U.S. college. And they are wondering if they are going to find people to connect with. And then there are also things like adjusting to food and money — our bills all look alike here.”
In the past, new international students arrived at the same time as their American peers. Now, they arrive early so they can settle in before orientation.
“What was happening was students were jet-lagged and they had so many things to sort out that they couldn’t go to orientation,” said Steiner-Lang. “Bringing them here early has made a huge difference in their comfort level and their ability to get connected with the campus.”
Stix International House was the first stop for many new freshmen last week. They browsed guides, brochures and handouts about everything from immunizations to identity theft, English classes to Craigslist, American classroom culture to St. Louis attractions.
Meanwhile advisers met with small groups of students to review programs like U-Pass, Home Plate and Speak English With Us. Students had their own questions: How cold will it get? Where can I buy spices? Are people friendly?
Intern Aigul Abdyldaeva, a graduate student from Kyrgyzstan, answered yes.
“Never be afraid to ask questions,” Abdyldaeva said. “On campus, even on the bus, people here are very pleasant. They want to help.”
OISS volunteers know what it’s like to travel across the globe to a new home because they’ve done it themselves. Junior Anuj Patel admits he felt homesick for his family and Brazilian beans when he first arrived.
“When you move someplace where you know no one, it’s hard to open yourself and talk to new people,” said Patel, who was born in India but grew up in São Paulo. “Another difference is international students sometimes have a different approach to school. They have more of a concern of, ‘I’m away from my parents, my parents have paid a lot of money for me to be here.’ So international students will study a lot. But I urge everyone to take some time and do the things that you would like to try.”
Patel led a group of three students to Target. Confronted by dozens of laundry detergents, two Chinese students wondered what could possibly differentiate the brands. Meanwhile Kenneth Sng, an economics student from Singapore, picked out pillows, sheets, two bowls and a cup. He brought from home his favorite sauces and spices, a blanket from his grandmother and his rice cooker.
“I had to pay an extra $100 to the airline,” said Sng, whose journey to St. Louis took 22 hours. “It would have been cheaper to buy one here but I wanted my own.”
Sng admitted he knows little about St. Louis, but is eager to see its attractions and go to a Cardinals game. He says most of his friends have never heard of St. Louis or Washington University. Indeed, back at Stix House, many international students swapped stories about their friends’ common misconceptions — Washington University is in the state of Washington or in Washington, D.C. The “saint” in St. Louis made the friend of a freshman wonder if Washington University is a religious school. That one made everyone laugh. Then, it was more talk about flight delays and the surprising number of trees on campus.
To Explore Leader Tommy Peng, a sophomore from New Zealand, it all brought back memories of his first day on campus.
“Like everyone here, I came because of the university’s prestige,” said Peng. “But what I know now is that what makes it great, in fact, is the people.”