Heading off to college can be a daunting experience in and of itself, but add moving to a new country and things get just a bit more complicated.
That’s the reality for over a thousand members of WPI’s student community who have come to attend WPI from 75+ countries around the world. As the director of international student life, Colleen Callahan-Panday spearheads the efforts to make their experience as smooth, supportive, and memorable as possible.
Back to Basics
The CliffsNotes version of her job is that she and her team in the Office of International Student Life are responsible for helping students with the necessary paperwork to acquire and maintain their visas during their time in the United States, but their work doesn’t stop there.
“We cover everything,” she says, and that’s no exaggeration—she and her staff assist students on topics ranging from work permits and tax and immigration questions to how to write a check or navigate an American grocery store.
The staff also collaborates with multicultural student groups to host a variety of extracurricular sessions and programs (the annual International Food Festival is always a highlight across campus) that give students the chance to share a bit of home with the WPI community.
Her worklife is definitely busy, with new opportunities always popping up, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “There’s always something to do, but we really love working with the students here. They feel like this is a little bit of their home on campus, and that’s what we aim to be.”
The Next Level
In addition to her day-to-day responsibilities, Callahan-Panday is prepared to tackle rare, higher-level issues involving security clearances and cultural sensitivities from time to time. For example, her staff worked with attorneys and immigration officials when students were affected by the travel ban in 2017. They helped the students cope during that difficult time, and eventually welcomed students who were stuck in their native countries back to campus.
“There are things people wouldn’t think about happening in this office, and although they don’t happen often, you still need to be prepared,” she says.
She also hosts sessions and programming on an as-needed basis to help students grapple with major events or tragedies occurring in their home countries and around the world. “When something happens, it’s good for students to know that we’re there to provide support, keep an eye on those things, and see how they’re doing.”
“The students think of us as an older sibling or friend, here to back them up when they need it.”
Home Sweet Home
Many students see the International House as a bit of a home base, so it’s particularly fitting that the office itself is located in an actual house. “We’re the place they can turn to,” Callahan-Panday explains, citing examples of why students will stop in—from the usual questions about work permits, taxes, or other technicalities to simply dealing with homesickness. “The students think of us as an older sibling or friend, here to back them up when they need it.”
Coming Full Circle
Callahan-Panday arrived at WPI in August of 2008, but her connection to international student affairs started much earlier.
“When I was an undergrad, I lived in a dorm called the international house,” she says with a laugh. “Now I work in one, and it feels like I never really left.”
Many friendships formed in that international house—it’s even where she met her husband—and she says having the chance to see things from both the student and administrative points of view has proven invaluable. “I remember what my friends went through as international students in college,” she says, “and they were going through the same things my students are now.”
While her job can be complicated and involve many processes, forms, and interactions, at the end of the day, Callahan-Panday’s goal for her students is simple:
“I want them to be successful,” she says. “I want them to enjoy their time here and have good memories to keep with them, whether they stay here or return home in the future.”
- By Allison Racicot