You Are Welcome Here
Campuses across the country want international students to know they belong in the United States
Imagine walking onto a U.S. campus to a group of students cheering your arrival. That’s the kind of friendly, supportive environment international students will encounter in the United States — a message that was conveyed through the powerful videos of the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign.
The campaign set out in late 2016 to reassure international students that they are welcome in the United States following President Trump’s travel ban. Since then, more than 300 universities have posted signs and made videos featuring students, faculty and community members saying, or shouting, “You are welcome here!” Some hold signs with messages like, “Our home is your home” and “There is more power in unity.”
What becomes apparent from watching the videos is that international students are an integral part of the U.S. university system. “They help us achieve and grow in meaningful ways,” says JoAnne Epps, provost of Temple University, in its #YouAreWelcomeHere video.
#YouAreWelcomeHere is now part of the multiple ways in which U.S. universities’ welcome foreign students to campus. Here are some of the others.
“The minute international students arrive, we want them to see a friendly face,” says Todd Ellwein, managing director of Louisiana State University’s global program. Not only do staff, students, or community members pick up international students at the airport, they go as far as making students’ beds and putting snacks and welcome cards in their rooms. These small efforts go a long way, Ellwein says.
Orientation and mentoring programs
Orientation week — a multi-day program on a campuses across the United States — introduces international students to campus life and the surrounding community. Staff help students choose a meal plan, set up a bank account, learn where they can buy their favorite foods, and find out about class schedules and locations.
Most international students express a desire to meet and mingle more with U.S. students, says Ellwein. That’s where mentoring programs come in. Mentoring programs match international students, or a small group of students, with a U.S. peer. Schools call these programs by different names — Peer2Peer, Buddies Beyond Borders, Student Ambassadors. But all give international students someone to turn to and learn from, like how to get around town and what Instagram accounts share tips about city nightlife.
One thing international students should know is that someone is always here for them, says Julie Medlin, international program coordinator at the University of South Carolina. Most universities send frequent newsletters or emails with updates covering everything from final exam dates to visa issues to student employment and internship opportunities. An update on the presidential travel ban is a permanent link on the International Program’s home page at the University of Kansas. Many universities also use social media to stay in touch, but importantly, students can talk in person with someone in the international student office. “Being able to drop in a have face time with staff can be comforting when you’re far from home,” says Medlin.
International student welfare is so important that two years ago Temple University created a position dedicated solely to supporting international student life. “We were bringing students here, but wanted to do a better job of helping them, so my role was added,” says Leah Hetzell, who oversees international student affairs at Temple University. Homesickness, sadness and health issues can be a part of studying abroad, she says, and a lot of schools are recognizing that they can better respond to students’ needs.
One of the most positive outcomes of the travel ban and campaign has been greater support across campus for international students.
During the uncertainties surrounding the travel ban, for example, one department at the University of South Carolina reached out to the international office because its department members were worried about the ban’s effect on international students. At Louisiana State University, a U.S. student stood up for an international student when an employee at the local mall was rude to her. And members of Grinnell College’s student government began looking for ways to better support international students.
“It’s helped make staff, faculty and students stronger advocates for international students,” says Karen Edwards, director of International Student Affairs at Grinnell, a private liberal arts school in Iowa.
Some universities are exploring ways to increase the profile of international students on campus. Students at the University of Kansas for example might notice more stories about their international peers in the school paper and on social media. And people walking around Eastern Michigan University will see banners on light posts featuring 108 of the school’s international students, with #YouAreWelcomeHere in bold type. “Increased visibility can help international students feel more appreciated and involved,” says Charlie Bankart, Kansas’ associate vice provost of international students.
Julie Medlin at the University of South Carolina points to the school’s Think Globally program as a means of student integration. Universities have held International days and festivals for years, but students are facilitating stronger discussions among themselves. In one session, U.S. students asked Chinese students whether women in China bind their feet and how Muslim women feel about wearing hijabs (head coverings).
These kind of frank conversations break down stereotypes and misconceptions, says Medlin. She adds that when international students feel like they’re part of the campus community, when they have a voice, they feel welcome.