Strong Relationships Are Key for International Student Community
The word “paperwork” generally doesn’t evoke images of comfort, security, and happiness. And yet, the strong relationships that staff in WPI’s Office of International Student Life develop with students are, in large part, built on a foundation of government forms and legal documents.
“When people ask what I do, I usually tell them I work in immigration,” says Colleen Callahan-Panday, director of International Student Life (ISL). “We help with pretty much anything an international student does that touches the US government.”
That translates to about 4,000 student appointments a year for Callahan-Panday and the other two staff members in the ISL office. Together, the small but mighty team helps roughly 1,400 WPI students and recent alumni with a range of services, including applying for Social Security numbers, securing driver’s licenses, filing taxes, submitting visa paperwork, and applying for work permits. While some of these services may not seem directly related to studying at WPI, all are helpful—and in some cases necessary—to working as a research or teaching assistant, as many graduate students do.
Of course, there’s more to life than paperwork, and the Office of International Student Life offers other services, too. In addition to serving as advisor to the International Student Council, Callahan-Panday and her staff work with many of WPI’s cultural student groups and help coordinate campuswide events and initiatives, such as International Education Month, which is held annually in November (see below).
“In many ways our office is like the host family in America for a lot of the students. It’s a safe space where they can come and share things,” she says. “I take pride in the fact that we holistically work with students.”
An important piece of that holistic work is acclimating students to life in a new country—including helping many prepare for their first-ever cold winter. And as ISL staff members get to know each new incoming cohort, they enjoy learning about students’ customs and celebrating that diversity with the wider campus community.
In any given year, WPI has about 1,000 international students from about 80 countries around the globe; roughly two-thirds of those are graduate students. Annually, ISL also works with 400–500 alumni who have special work permits related to their STEM degrees and about 20 exchange students from universities in Armenia, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland who are doing a semester- or yearlong program at WPI.
ISL staff have gained a reputation over time for being helpful and accessible to students, thanks in part to the daily drop-in office hours offered (in person and virtually) during the work week. Renovations at the International House over the summer have provided students with more spaces for informal get-togethers, quiet work, or video meetings. Callahan-Panday hopes the improvements to the physical space, including a comfortable new student lounge, will help make International House even more of a welcome gathering place.
“We’re really excited to put more time and energy into community building this year,” she says, noting that the last few years have been especially challenging for many international students.
Travel restrictions during COVID-19 caused a steep drop in WPI’s international student enrollment in fall 2020, and those who were on campus because border closures prevented them from going home also couldn’t gather together because of social distancing rules. Recent political upheaval and natural disasters around the globe, along with open xenophobia in some US politics, have also left many international students feeling especially lonely and anxious.
“During COVID, there was an understanding that international students were in a special situation. And with the emphasis on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in higher ed right now, there’s an acknowledgement of how challenging the transition to a new place can be,” Callahan-Panday says. With all that in mind, a special focus on mental health is being woven into ISL’s events. “The community piece is really important when it comes to mental health.”
To that end, ISL has updated the resource guide for this year’s International Student Handbook. The booklet highlights resources in and around Worcester to help international students navigate their new home. Aashish Singh Alag, president of the International Student Council in 2022–23, took the lead on this project over the summer, crowdsourcing current students’ recommendations on things like places of worship, community groups, restaurants, stores—even barbershops and salons, since not everyone’s hair is the same texture.
“Like other international students, I have experienced cultural shock and know that it can leave you feeling incredibly homesick and isolated,” says Singh Alag, a BS/MS student in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. “The process of finding the familiar comforts of our home countries can be time-consuming, and we hope this guide will help incoming students have a smoother, quicker, and less anxious transition to life in the USA and provide reassurance to their families back home.”
In addition to highlighting key campus services in a centralized location, the resource guide explains American norms around day-to-day necessities such as banking, mobile phone contracts, healthcare, and utilities for off-campus housing, among others.
“We’re also asking people if there’s a cultural celebration they’d like the International House to do a shout out for on social media,” Callahan-Panday says. “There are bigger festivals that are already on people’s radar, like Diwali. But there are others, too, and if we can help students feel a little more connected with a post saying ‘Happy Nowruz’ to anybody who’s celebrating today,’ why not?”
November is International Education Month!
To kick off WPI’s program of activities, International Student Life will host an open house on Wednesday, November 1, from 12–2 p.m. at the International House (28 Trowbridge Road). Stop by to enjoy great company and delicious cider donuts and apple cider.