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Vision Fund program helps international students find nutritional balance
Vision Fund program helps international students find nutritional balanceAugust 19, 2002Nicci Brownnicbrown@syr.edu
As director of Syracuse University’s Lillian and Emanuel Slutzker Center for International Services, Patricia Burak is used to dealing with a variety of challenges. From visas to banking to accommodation concerns, Burak and her staff handle all types of inquiries from the approximately 2,200 international students that study at the University every year. But Burak was shocked when she learned that some of these visiting students – particularly the graduate students living off campus–were ignoring their health to the point where they were being hospitalized or even abandoning their studies.
“In one case we had a brilliant woman from Russia who was studying for her Ph.D.,” Burak says. “She had never had to shop for food or cook before, and eating was a really low priority for her. I would go and visit her and she would have one head of cabbage and one quart of milk to eat for the whole week. When that was gone she would buy one chicken and a gallon of juice and just eat that.”
Burak says the student was eventually so malnourished that she became ill and had to visit the SU Health Center to get nutritional advice. It was only by following a structured eating plan that she was able to regain her strength and complete her studies.
Knowing where to get healthy food, and how to store and prepare it may seem like a simple enough task for American students – even if they do choose to center their eating habits around take-out meals–but for their international counterparts it’s not always so obvious.
“Sometimes it takes weeks or months for students to find the Asian grocery stores or the regional market,” says Burak. “They don’t always understand the nutritional differences between 2 percent, 1 percent, low-fat, skim, soy and all of the other different types of milk available here. Likewise, they might just buy the very cheap bread, but it’s not the one with whole grains in it; it’s not giving them the calcium or the iron or the thiamin or the other nutrition they need.”
With SU’s international student population comprised mostly of Indian, Taiwanese, Chinese, Korean and Turkish nationals, Burak says there are many students who are accustomed to eating only fresh food. “They don’t have the canned and processed foods that we eat,” she says. “So when they start eating our food their systems reject it and they stop eating it, and then they don’t know what to eat.” In addition, many of these students are not aware of the proper storage methods for foods sold in the U.S.
In 1964, Syracuse University became one of the first universities in the U.S. to provide a dedicated center dealing with the needs of international students. Its orientation program, which all international students participate in, has included information on health and nutrition since the mid-1980s. Despite this, a number of students still have difficulty establishing a healthy eating routine.
Professor Sudha Raj, who gives the introductory nutrition segment of the health presentation, has come up with a plan to change this. “We needed to find a way to help the students translate the information into practice,” she says. Raj, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management in the College of Human Services and Health Professions (HSHP), believes that helping international students get better nutrition will facilitate better academic results in the long term. “Research in the 1980s found that when it comes to international students, poor health is a big reason behind student drop out,” she says. “We want to help break that cycle.”
Raj designed a program that would help international students learn not only about good nutrition, but also physical activity and stress management, as practiced in the U.S. Working with Burak, Professor Anne Gosling from HSHP’s Department of Marriage and Family Therapy and Mitch Gartenberg, SU’s Director of Recreation Services, Raj was successful in obtaining a 2002 Vision Fund grant to help establish “Health and Wellness: An Orientation Program for New International Graduate Students.”
Coordinated by the Center for Support of Teaching and Learning (CSTL), the Vision Fund program provides grants of up to $30,000 for initiatives that have the full support of the appropriate school, college or department. The 2002 Vision Fund cycle was designed to support the fourth initiative of the University’s Academic Plan, which is aimed at enhancing the intellectual climate through diversity. Diversity is also identified as a priority in the Division of Student Affairs’ 2001-06 Strategic Plan.
Raj’s pilot program includes four individual sessions, which began on Aug. 17 and continues until Aug. 22. During the first session, Raj took students through the process of preparing (and eating) a healthy breakfast. They also visited Peter’s Groceries to learn about pricing, the use of coupons and where to find certain foods.
The students were also given a tour of SU’s Archbold Gym, where they received instruction on the use of fitness equipment. Gartenberg says the tour was a way to help international students overcome the frustration they feel when faced with equipment they don’t know how to use. “Learning new policies and using various equipment can be overwhelming in a new place,” Gartenberg says. “We’re trying to offer a ‘non-threatening’ experience for students.” Gartenberg says “sport-specific” language and idiomatic expressions (such as “working out,” rather than “exercising”) can also become barriers to international students interested in participating in physical activity. A question and answer session following the tour was designed to help students voice their concerns, as well as providing Recreation Services information on student needs.
Gosling will host a “stress management” session on Aug. 20. In addition to helping students identify and differentiate between stress and distress, will Gosling examine the difference between positive and negative stress. The session is designed to help students increase their practice of stress-management skills in day-to-day situations, as well as help them understand the benefits of exercise and relaxation.
The program will close with students putting their skills to work by preparing and eating their own lunch on Aug. 22. During the food preparation sessions, students will also be given information about the handling of appliances, food storage and safety.
Although the initial “Health and Wellness” program is a pilot and will accommodate only 20 students, Raj hopes the information will reach a far greater audience through “word of mouth.” She also hopes to conduct long-term research into how international students acculturate with food habits and practices. In addition, depending on the pilot results, Raj wants to broaden the program to accommodate all incoming freshmen. In the long term, she says it will save time and money, reduce student drop out and increase student performance.