International Office's awarded program helps foreign graduate students adapt to a new culture
On February 16, a group of international graduate students gathered in the living room of Northwestern’s Office of International Student and Scholar Services for a casual workshop on financial wellness, one of 24 sessions of the Discovering USA program. Led by Eileen To, Assistant Director of Financial Aid at the Office of Financial Aid, as well as the Office of International Student and Scholar Services staff, the discussion focused on the importance of making smart economic decisions and highlighted campus resources available to those students.
Divided in three major themes – adjustment, campus resources and exploration of social identity – Discovering USA is a year-long program designed to give international graduate students an overview of life in the United States. Ever since the Office of International Student and Scholar Services and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) launched the program in 2016, more than 200 Northwestern students from different parts of the world have participated in the program, learning valuable lessons on adapting to American culture and institutions and taking care of their own mental health while abroad.
The program runs nearly every Friday during the school year. For two hours, participants hear from experts on a variety of topics on how to succeed as a foreign student and share their own perspectives on how they handle specific issues back in their home countries. The discussions do more than confer information; they also help to foster an international community for graduate students in their new home.
Deborah Kaltman, coordinator of International Student Experience and one of the program’s creators, saw a need for a program specifically designed for the 2,700 graduate students from abroad.
“Many more campus resources and programs are geared towards undergraduate students,” Kaltman said. “Often graduate students are isolated in their academic programs, and have fewer opportunities to meet students from other programs or countries. Graduate school is a unique and challenging experience, and we wanted to provide as much support as possible.”
In the Fall of 2016, the Office of International Student and Scholar Services announced the inception of Discovering USA, replacing the Brown Bag series, a former program designed to outline campus resources in a “fun” way for graduate students. Compared to its predecessor, Discovering USA is wider in scope. Topics related to mental wellness are explored at length, giving students tools on how to create a social support network, promote positive mental health habits, and establish safe spaces for international students.
INTERNATIONAL STUDENT PERSPECTIVE
Tong Jin, a master's student from China participating in SESP’s Higher Education Administration and Policy program, serves as a Graduate Assistant for the Office of International Student and Scholar Services and is part of the Discovering USA team. Her role is to facilitate discussions, collect feedback from the attendees, and help with content preparation. As an international student herself, she says she understands many of the issues that participants face.
“I understand that many international students, including myself, have to learn how to take care of themselves when they come to this country for the first time,” Tong said. “They need to learn how to cook, where to do grocery shopping, and how to open a bank account. There are many cultural norms that are different from those in their home countries, so they need to adapt to almost everything.”
Tong also pointed out that international students deal with high academic expectations. From her perspective, international students usually do not know what to expect from their professors and assignments, as the American system may be very different from that of their home countries. In addition, many students coming from non-English speaking countries can have difficulty overcoming the language barrier. All of these factors can combine in ways that lead to stress and anxiety, symptoms the Discovering USA program hopes to mitigate.
“I guess Discovering USA’s biggest impact on the international community is to help international students transition to the United States while acquainting them with American culture,” she said. “We also try to create a place where international students can come to practice English and make friends. They keep in touch and maintain the friendship after the program ends. And this is exactly what we like to see.”
By the end of the program’s first year, The Office of International Student and Scholar Services and CAPS’ received the Campus Partner Award, conferred by the Division of Student Affairs Vice President's Office to recognize distinguished initiatives that improve the Northwestern student experience. This is the highest possible honor received by a Northwestern extracurricular program.
For Kaltman, this is a sign the program is meeting its expectations: helping more international students feel like part of the Northwestern community.
“We hope we have created a space where graduate students can connect with each other, discuss their challenges and struggles, learn about social issues in the U.S., make friends and relax outside their labs and classrooms,” Kaltman said. “It’s also an opportunity for us to discuss pro-active mental health practices and to destigmatize mental health services. A healthy mind will help you achieve success in your studies and careers.”