GW reaches out to foreign students

Korean native Jee Won Choi said she struggled to overcome culture shock while transitioning to college life two years ago.

It was hard to assimilate into the wider University culture, so she opted to live with a Korean roommate and make Korean friends. As she ends her sophomore year, she says she still doesn’t know much about the U.S.

“I wanted to get used to American culture. But I do not think I have,” Choi said.

Throughout the spring semester, the International Services Office has worked to identify areas of improvement, and looks to roll out changes by the end of this month, as the University continues to up its international student representation. International students represent 12 percent of the student body.

Andrew Sonn, who was promoted to assistant vice president for student and academic support services in December and is leading the review, hopes to help strengthen the University’s ability to support international students as the population grows, focusing especially on admissions and visiting scholars.

“Now is a really good time for us to look at the information systems [for international students],” Sonn said. “We want to make sure our infrastructure is able to accommodate an increased number of students.”

The refocusing comes after the admissions office announced last fall its plan to bring in more students from abroad – who typically pay full tuition – to diversify academic and campus life.

Sonn added that next fall’s unveiling of the strategic plan, which prioritizes globalization, will also require improvements in international student support.

The International Services Office is students’ first stop for administrative assistance with documentation such as visas, passports and immigration forms related to studying in the U.S. It also offers counseling, non-academic advising and referral services.

Director of the office Greg Leonard said over the last three years, the number of students requesting services each day has increased by 72 percent.

Sonn said the committee conducting the review has so far concentrated on picking the “low hanging fruit,” through projects like digitizing admissions information.

The standing committee will eventually focus on both sides of international student support – paperwork and cultural transitions – but no specific timeline has been set for the broader strategy.

Robert Chernak, senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services, said he would have made international students his top priority if he was not leaving the University this summer.

“In addition to providing excellent service for the processing of student visas and other compliance related activities, it is equally important to offer programming and proper ongoing orientation to these visiting students as an introduction to the culture of the United States, GW policies and procedures, and academic expectations,” Chernak said.

For more than a decade, the office has hosted a Conversation, Communication and Culture program that includes activities like carving pumpkins at Halloween, attending a GW basketball game, visiting museums and taking a trip to Ben’s Chili Bowl. Office staff have put a larger focus on these programs and are evaluating their successes this year.

“We are always interested in garnering more attention and feedback from international students as to what type of activities and events they would like to join,” Dawn Wooten, who was hired this fall as an assistant director for programming and support services in the International Services Office, said.

Director of the Center for Student Engagement Tim Miller said his staff does not specifically reach out to international students, but noted that events for graduate students typically include about 80 to 90 percent international students.

“International undergraduate students blend in with their environments more,” Miller said. “But so much of the graduate student population doesn’t live on campus, so they don’t automatically build relationships with other American students.”

GW’s international student population has climbed 37 percent over the past five years to reach 2,553 international undergraduate and graduate students last fall. Out of all international students, 72 percent are graduate students.

The top countries sending students to GW are China, South Korea and India.

Jae In Lee, a senior also from South Korea, said she didn’t know the International Services Office hosted events or provided non-academic counseling for students, but would be interested in learning to acclimate to American campus life.

“If GW offered more programs closer to campus, it would be helpful,” Lee said. “Many people I know are struggling.”

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