August 23, 2008

Campus programs seek to aid international students

Liz Foreman
Assistant City Editor

From a city of Olympic proportions, Silvia Wang is one of the international exchange students who have embarked on a scholarly journey to join the Baylor community this fall.

The 20-year-old English and economics major from Tsinghua University in Beijing plans to study at Baylor for a year through the exchange program.

"I hope to take this opportunity to acquire a fresh outlook on academic and social life," Wang said. "Mostly, to expand the depth and breadth of education by taking courses not available at home university, such as languages and Asian studies from a Western perspective."

Language and cultural barriers, along with the absence of family and friends, can make the first few weeks of school confusing.

Along with the typical stresses a new student encounters, international students must worry about things such as immigration status and acquiring a Social Security number.

This is where the Center for International Education comes in, to help students with the more complicated aspects of their stay.

The international exchange students' two-day orientation differs from the typical Baylor orientation in that it focuses on matters such as immigration rules, obtaining Social Security and health insurance, public safety, taxes, cyber-security and academic support, said Alexine Burke, international student adviser.

Despite their many responsibilities, the main focus of the staff at the office of International Student and Scholar Services is to help the students build relationships.

One way is through PAWS, People Around the World Sharing, a program that gives all Baylor students the opportunity to meet international students and form friendships.

"Most students come alone," said Beth Walker, international student relations coordinator. "PAWS is an intentional way to support, mentor and form a friendship with an international student."

The PAWS program is open for anyone to participate. The application can be found on the Center for International Education quick links page on the Baylor Web site.

Weatherford senior Christine Lagaly said she gained more than she imagined through her PAWS partnership with Hitomi Iwamoto from Japan.

"At first, I felt like I was too busy to make a commitment, so I was hesitant to take on the responsibility if I couldn't be there for her," Lagaly said. "However, I made time and it has been one of the most mutually rewarding friendships I've ever had."

Lagaly and Iwamoto's relationship grew beyond just campus socializing and once-a-week activities. Iwamoto traveled home on holidays with Lagaly and even formed a close bond with Lagaly's family.

Lagaly said she encourages students to make a PAWS commitment.

"I think it was good for her to have someone to count on; that can make all the difference in someone's experience," she said.

Upon arrival in Waco, international and exchange students are also set up with a welcome family in the Waco community, that volunteers to lend support and mentoring to the student throughout his or her stay.

Lynn Segura, Woodway resident and mother of two Baylor graduates, has been hosting international Baylor students for 13 years.

"I think it's neat to learn about the students' cultures and see how they adapt to American culture," Segura said. "My husband and I do mission work, so I feel like this is an extension of that."

Getting settled can mean simple things that typical students may take for granted, such as going to the grocery store and Walmart.

Without transportation, such things can prove difficult for international students.

Segura and her family have volunteered to be Wang's welcome family. Segura said that this will include things such as having her over for dinner, taking her on errands and weekend trips to places such as San Antonio.

"We will do the same things with the international students that we would do with our own girls," Segura said. "We try to be their substitute family, even though we can't take the place of their real families."

Becoming a part of the Baylor community also means becoming involved in extracurricular activities.

International Rec-Social is an organization created to assist international students with the systems of student life, orient them to various recreational and social activities, and integrate them into the recreational programs.

International Rec-Social was created last year as a way to get international students involved in extracurricular activities, said Ikuko Aoyama, a graduate student from Japan.

This organization allows students to become involved in intramurals, takes students kayaking, rock climbing and on out-of-town trips throughout the year.

This year, International Rec-Social plans to take students to Sea World in San Antonio and to the rodeo in Waco.

As an international student, Aoyama sees the importance of International Rec-Social to students like herself.

"At first, I couldn't go anywhere since I didn't have a car, which made me feel very limited," she said. "I want them to be able to enjoy things here."

The organization sponsored a football clinic Aug. 16, to get students acquainted with the American sport and teach them Baylor chants and cheers.

According to Burke, these kinds of programs are crucial to ensuring the international exchange students don't go through a period of loneliness.

"The biggest challenge might be a feeling of isolation, which we try to address so they don't feel so alone and isolated," she said. "American students typically have mom and dad a few hours away to drive up here if they need them."

Although this may be a common problem, Wang is confident that she will make friends.

"I like to talk with and listen to people, and exchange ideas," Wang said. "I'm sure I will find friends in my classes and in other activities."

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