When a House Becomes a Virtual Home
In the 2018–19 academic year, nearly 6,000 individual students visited the International House on Trowbridge Road.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic surged during the beginning of D-term this year, Colleen Callahan-Panday knew that her team wouldn’t be able to serve those students in person—and most of their work traditionally needs to be done in person.
“We help them with their immigration paperwork,” says Callahan-Panday, director of International Student Life (ISL). “We photocopy paperwork, we get student signatures, we send documents to the government.”
Thanks to quick thinking, a pivot toward Zoom calls in lieu of in-person appointments, and the shipping powers of FedEx, the ISL got its work-from-home sea legs. “We’re having students scan and upload their paperwork, and through screen sharing we can go over it together online. After virtual appointments we scan and email or FedEx documents as needed,” Callahan-Panday says. “If you'd asked me in February, I couldn’t have imagined how our office would work remotely, but it’s nice to know now that we can do it.”
What’s even nicer is that even though international students are far from their families, ISL is working hard to make them feel at home. That’s no easy feat—Callahan-Panday says there are nearly 700 international WPI students living off campus in Worcester.
She says one of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic is not being able to open the International House for students to gather in person. “We’re a small office, and pretty close-knit. Before we started working remotely, these students would come to our office, which is almost like their home away from home. Now we offer virtual office hours so that students can ask questions or just see a friendly face.”
“We wanted to be there for them, we wanted to know how they were doing,” says Mirabelle Tseng, assistant director of ISL. “It’s more than just a job for us.”
The Office of International Student Life was recently recognized in The Helping Herd for its support of international students. Read more here.
Tseng also says the support WPI gives its international students is unmatched. She would know—she was once in these students’ shoes.
“I was an international student at another university seven years ago, and I didn’t feel quite connected to my advisors,” she says. “But the students do at WPI. It’s what makes us stand apart from the others.”
The support given to international students goes further than just a virtual hangout. Callahan-Panday says her team closely monitors state and federal regulations and requirements, especially as they change during the COVID-19 pandemic. Team members make sure students aren’t at risk of losing their immigration status or wind up stranded due to the inability to travel. They put extra effort behind showing students how to get help during the COVID-19 outbreak, too.
“These students are required to have health insurance while they’re here, but many of them have never been to an American doctor,” she says. The American health system may be much different from what they’ve experienced, she adds, so the team tries to help guide them to the right resources.
As the year creeps closer to June, which Callahan-Panday says is traditionally a little quieter for her office, the team is busy helping students get work permits and answering questions about visas. And as the pandemic continues to have an impact worldwide, they are keeping watch on local government recommendations and touching base with other institutions to see how they’re tackling challenges and developing strategies to best serve their students for the coming academic year.
Regardless of the pace of the work—or the place it occurs—Tseng says ISL will always dedicate itself to students.
“It’s more about students’ lives,” she says. “We want to help them continue to thrive during this pandemic and understand how to get the help they need. We want to help them enjoy life here.”
–By Jess Messier