Connecting coursework to career goals is a major pillar of the student experience. Each student’s unique definition of success may evolve throughout time on campus and students may find themselves thinking of changing career goals, transferring to another Syracuse University…
Overcoming Barriers and Borders to Bring Students Together
The pandemic has impacted every member of the Orange community—students, faculty and staff—and transformed the way people live, learn and work. Perhaps nowhere have these changes been felt more dramatically than among international students and those who serve them with programs intended to increase engagement among international and domestic students and connect international students to the local community.
One such program from the Center for International Services is Mix It Up, an initiative to advance inclusion and intercultural understanding among all groups in the student body. Mix It Up provides students with a welcome and comfortable space for dialogue, and creates opportunities for students to engage with others on various topics in a small group setting.
Yang “Lori” Lu is a Mix It Up facilitator who came to Syracuse University in 2019 from Nantong, China, as a graduate student. She says her work with Mix It Up helps to create “a comfortable environment for those who want to share their personal stories and to spark more discussions among students with different backgrounds, to engage more international students into our SU community and then generate a sense of belonging in ‘Cuse.”
Recently, Lu facilitated a group that included two students from South America who shared the impact of COVID-19 on their home countries. “It is frustrating and heartbreaking knowing that people do not have access to necessities like food and water amid the pandemic. At the same time, I feel privileged having a rather safe life here,” she says.
“Our job is to make international students feel welcome, to ease their transition to University life and to help them succeed personally and professionally,” says Juan Tavares, director of the Center for International Services. “Starting back in 2016, with travel bans, Muslim bans and the rhetoric on the national scene, that job became much more challenging. The pandemic is an additional whammy.”
At the start of the 2019-20 academic year, about 4,400 international students called the Syracuse University campus their home away from home. Today, there are about 1,775 international students on campus. Many were unable to leave their home countries to return to America after break. Many are continuing their studies remotely, in time zones half a world away.
“As an international student right now, there is a lot of uncertainty about my future here in the USA, due to the COVID-19 restrictions and the ever-changing rules on travel outside of the USA,” says Alaba Danagogo, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences who came to Syracuse from Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. “I had to spend the entirety of the quarantine away from my family in Nigeria, because I was scared that I would not be allowed to come back to the USA, and be forced to complete my senior year online. So many other students have to contend with strange time differences, language barriers and the loneliness of doing classes online.”
Danagogo learned the importance of connecting with other international students during her first year on campus through the Connections Mentoring program in the Center for International Services for all new undergraduate international students.
“It was like being part of a larger family of people going through similar stressors,” Danagogo says. Now she is a Connections mentor to help others “during the tumultuous first semester for them and showing them that their differences do not isolate them.” The vast majority of her mentees are doing their academic studies online from their home countries. “I strive to meet with them virtually on a regular basis and provide virtual inside looks at what campus life is like,” she says.
The center continues to engage students on campus and abroad in activities that bring them together—either virtually or in-person under social distancing guidelines. “We focus on topics of universal concern,” says Kevin Speer, coordinator of events and activities. “Topics without borders like the pandemic, relationships and racial justice.” About two dozen students came together recently for a Mix It Up that dealt with issues facing the LGBTQ+ community.
“I think it is very important to have a space to discuss identities, such as the LGBTQ+ community, from an intercultural context,” says Speer. “Even for students who have proximity to that community and are knowledgeable about lived experiences or issues that many in those community face, the intercultural context is important. The conversation allows students to share from their own experience, as well as speak to their perception of what things are like in their home country.”
Despite the challenges, the center staff remain undaunted. “Our purpose has remained the same,” says Tavares. “Our number one priority is to help international students adjust to their new lives and maintain their immigration status. During the pandemic, our office remains open. There are forms to be filled out and paperwork to complete to help our students stay in the states or work off campus.” He points out that a thriving international student community is a huge asset to the University and the local economy.
“In our congressional district alone, international students contributed nearly $286 million to the economy,” says Tavares. That’s the economic impact of international students paying tuition, fees, room and board, renting apartments, buying cars, etc. “It’s a tremendous contribution.”