The weekend leading up to Sep. 10, 2019, saw hundreds of international students arriving in Chicago, spanning areas all across the globe - many of whom have never previously been to the U.S. Along with their luggage, they also bring a whole host of questions from banking and health insurance to culture shocks and academic credit for foreign curriculums.
My name is Dhrithi. I came into International Student Orientation (ISO) eager to experience both the U.S. and Northwestern for the first time. Like many other students, I was intimidated and overwhelmed by the long list of tasks that I had to get through from obtaining a US SIM card to setting up a bank account to getting re-screened for tuberculosis (the university did not accept TB screening reports from certain countries). With an ever growing list of questions I was comforted by the thought of ISO potentially alleviating some of my concerns and challenges. Progressing through ISO I realized that I wouldn’t be offered these resources, as did my friends.
ISO was marketed as a critical program that aims to answer pivotal questions and help students overcome the obstacles of acclimating to a brand-new country and education system. But that was not the actual student experience.
Unlike the immediate campus integration of Wildcat Welcome, international students found themselves at a very different Northwestern - a Northwestern where housing cost $35.65 a day and the dining options included a grand total of one open hall: Hinman, at which meals were charged. The campus itself was missing most resources - elevators weren’t running, moving support wasn’t available, soap dispensers weren’t filled, and in some dorms, shower curtains weren’t even up yet. In hindsight, ISO being marketed as though it was mandatory was a blatant mischaracterization. Students who paid extra for housing and dining with expectations that ISO would be a resource bank were in fact signing up for a series of recreational activities - the quality of which varied greatly between different IPA groups, and were often poorly attended.
This sentiment is shared not only among student attendees of ISO, but International Peer Advisers (IPA) who helped facilitate the program as well.
My name is Skye. I was an International Peer Advisor in 2019. The first day of orientation, I went to O’Hare Terminal 5 along with several other IPAs to pick up incoming students. The school arranged two buses for all the students. The first bus left at around 2pm after it was full. All students arriving after 2 p.m. had to wait for seven hours for the second bus to come, after 20-hour long flights. When they eventually got to campus, there was no staff available to help them move-in to their dorm. They all carried two to three giant pieces of luggage and had to drag them across campus. Three students who were assigned to Elder did not have access to their rooms because the locks weren’t activated.
For the rest of the orientation, I, as well as some of my IPA friends, witnessed many students struggling with affording food and finding help with their malfunctioning dorm facilities. The lack of attention from the university and lack of resources provided to the International Office and ISO really made me question whether we are seen by the institution.
Here is what we think the university can do to make the experience better for its students:
First, housing should cost less during International Student Orientation and Northwestern should provide more financial aid for students who cannot afford additional housing and meal charges during ISO. One of my IPA group students arrived on campus with no cash, no credit card, no phone, and no laptop. Although he did not have to pay for housing, he still needed to pay for transportation during ISO as well as several meals. The gift card provided by the school wasn’t enough for him to pay for everything, especially considering that he needed to purchase basic supplies like a cell phone.
Second, International Peer Advisor positions should be more advertised among non-international students. While the positions are not technically restricted to only international students, the application is marketed more towards international students than non-international ones. It gives off the impression that only international students can become IPAs.
Some might argue that only international students can relate to other international students and the difficulties they face; however, last year, there were a few non-international IPAs who did an amazing job leading their groups and facilitating ISO. It is perfectly possible for U.S. students to be able to guide incoming international students and help them adjust to a brand new culture.
Lastly, Northwestern should pay more overall attention to the International Student Orientation experience and make the campus more welcoming for incoming international students: dorm facilities should be ready, dining halls should be open, meal plans should be functional, and there should be staff who can help students with moving in and checking into dorm rooms. It was incredibly saddening to see the stark contrast between the amount of effort Northwestern puts into Wildcat Welcome compared with International Student Orientation.
A Note to the Readers:
This article is not targeted at organizers of the orientation, but the institution of Northwestern as a whole. By writing about our experience during ISO, we hope that there is more awareness on campus about the international student experience and that changes will follow.
Editor's Note: The views presented in this story belong to the writers and are not necessarily reflective of North by Northwestern as a whole.
This article was updated on 3 March 2020. A previous version of the article mischaracterized International Student Orientation as being mandatory and implied International Peer Advisor positions were restricted to international students. Additionally, an anecdote concerning an individual student's living situation has been removed from the article due to privacy concerns. NBN regrets any factual errors and would also like to acknowledge that the International Office has been actively working to address many of the concerns expressed in this piece.