Student View: Finding friends and giving back through the International Student Orientation
In this Student View column, International Student Counselor Christina Zhen ‘22 describes what brought her to the Hill and how she made close friendships along the way.
BY CHRISTINA ZHEN ’22
When it was time for me to start applying for college, I was studying at an international school called The Village School in Houston, Texas, and my uncle introduced me to St. Olaf College.
This was my first time hearing about St. Olaf since it’s not really well-known in the southern United States or in China, where I grew up. No one around me had heard about the school before, until one day, when I was talking with my residence life leader, he told me that his fiancée graduated from St. Olaf in 2013! He chatted with me about his fiancée’s experience at St. Olaf, which was really interesting and exciting to me. I decided to apply.
In April 2018, I came to Admitted Student Day by myself. A storm hit once I landed in Minnesota, and I was told that all the planned admissions events were canceled.
So when I first arrived on campus, everything was white and super super super cold. I was actually pretty nervous and worried about the severe weather, but in August that year I came back to campus for International Student Orientation (ISO) and it was so hot! And I finally got to see how our campus looks without snow.
All students who hold foreign visas to study in the United States are required to participate in ISO at St. Olaf. This three-day event is held prior to the college’s campus-wide New Student Orientation (NSO) program for all first-year students. During ISO, the school arranges all courses and activities related to international students, including signing all legal documents and learning about international health insurance, how international students find employment in school, mental health counseling, and so on. There are also many social activities led by international students counselors (ISCs) to enable new international students to make friends and integrate into college life in the United States in a short time.
The week of ISO and NSO for me as a first-year student was really busy and tiring, but also exciting. We had activities from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. — there was no time to take a nap or miss home.
At the time, I used to complain about the schedule, because it really is a lot of things to do, but I came to learn that Assistant Director for International Student Engagement Megan Carmes purposely made the schedule very structured. Because all of us international students hail from around the world, the active schedule helps us adjust to the local time zone before school starts. It also keeps us busy so we feel less homesick.
I actually met almost all of my best friends during orientation week. Although we added each other on social media before we arrived on campus, we did not really know each other well. But during ISO, we had many chances to do activities together and hang out afterwards.
For example, Anna Liu ‘22 and I have been roommates for three years now. We didn’t know that we were from the same city, Chengdu, until we arrived at St. Olaf. We became good friends when we met for the first time in ISO and we both chose to major in biology. During our time at school, we have become like family. Now we take care of each other all the time, encourage each other, and urge each other to study and live in a positive way. Since we are all alone in a foreign country, we can better understand each other’s feelings and positions, so we are willing to give each other more company. It’s been a relief to have someone so close to me at school who is also on the same page with me.
ISO had such a big impact on me that I decided to become an ISC this year. The first reason is, of course, because my counselor at the time influenced me a lot. She was super nice and helpful, always patient while answering questions, and gave us a lot of tips for surviving on campus. Every time she saw me she gave me a big hug — it made me feel welcome and reminded me that I’m not alone. Therefore, I really wanted to pass down what I got from her to the incoming students, and try my best to help them and also learn from them.
Experiencing ISO as a counselor instead of a new student was very different. There was a lot of preparation beforehand and we were very busy. We started training four days before the incoming students arrived and prepared each of them an arrival bag. We also went to the airport to pick them up if they did not have their own transportation. We really wanted to make sure that when they arrived on campus, we were ready.
From the moment the first-year students arrived at school, we maintained a 24-hour standby mode. Although we predicted that the working time per day was about eight hours, the actual working time was far more than we expected because we managed a full schedule of activities and info sessions every day and (like anything else) things came up that we didn’t expect to happen. For us this year, it was a flight delay that kept me waiting in the airport for six hours. Checking in with the students, who were understandably emotional, after that also required more time.
Each of our counselors is responsible for 8-12 students. We have breakfast with them at 8 a.m. every morning and then start a new day.
Many students will complain that our activities are too boring because there are many topics about taxes, visas, scholarships, or how to find a job in school. But, in fact, this is also a very special place in our school because very few schools are so considerate to international students. All these topics are of great help to students’ school life in the future.
As I mentioned before, I met many good friends in orientation. Without them, I wouldn’t have been so happy in the past three years. Because I met good people and got a lot of help, I became who I am now. Because of this, I think it is a special honor to be an ISC. I can do my best to help them when they are most confused after arriving at school and witness their growth with my own eyes. At the same time, I also saw the shadow of me who just came to the Hill three years ago. I was curious about everything, but I was afraid of possible setbacks. I hope my “children” can enjoy what St. Olaf can give them: to love life and become better themselves.
I always believe that passing on the help and positive energy you received is the best thing. Those who gave me a helping hand selflessly when I was lost come from every different corner in the world, but their smiles and hugs warm me. After I graduate from St. Olaf in the future, I will still live with this belief.