Even before Wildcat Welcome began, about 300 international first-years had arrived on campus to take part in the International Student Orientation (ISO). Students moved in on Sept. 10 for the program that consisted of four full days of programming. During ISO, international students attended various optional programs, presentations and social events led by the International Peer Advisors, also known as IPAs, and met other first-years like them from all over the world.

McCormick sophomore Shourya Agarwal, an IPA from India, said that the main goal of ISO is to help international students adjust to the campus and the U.S. before being thrown into the hectic nature of Wildcat Welcome. When reflecting on his experience as a first-year, he acknowledged that being with only international students at the beginning of college was helpful because “you know everyone is in the same boat as you.”

Photo of IPAs Shourya Agarwal and Ishaan Narain and their groups of international students at the Bean on the ISO Chicago trip. 

Though that may be true, not everyone had a positive experience with ISO. For some IPAs, their main reason for applying was because they wanted to give future international students a better experience than they had when they were freshmen. Mariana Reyes Daza, a Communication sophomore from Colombia, originally did not plan on applying but changed her mind when hearing about organizational changes to the program.

“Last year my experience in ISO was kind of bad because it wasn’t really organized properly,” Reyes Daza said. “My IPAs were super nice and friendly, but I didn’t really feel like they gave me an experience that was helpful or that I could reach out to them afterward. From having this bad experience, I wanted to make sure that the new international freshmen could have a more welcoming experience than I did.”

Karina Patel, a Communication sophomore who lived in England, Denmark and Singapore, also saw a change in ISO between this year and last year.

“I feel like we gave [international students] a better experience than we got last year,” Patel said. “It was slightly more organized and I just cared so much. I know most of us cared so much and I think that made all the difference.”

One of ISO’s largest changes for this year was a shift away from larger groups led by two IPAs and toward smaller groups headed by one. Medill sophomore Giovana Gelhoren, said that the smaller groups allowed her to connect with her students, who she referred to as her “babies,” on a deeper level.

“When we came to this year and I had a smaller group of nine people and I was in charge, that meant that they got to know each other much better and they got to know me much better,” Gelhoren said. “I know every single person in my group really well. I see them in the street and hug them every time.”

Coming from a variety of different cultures, no two international students’ experiences are exactly the same. And yet, many IPAs saw their groups bonding over their differences. During a visit to Chicago, Reyes Daza’s group of international students visited Chinatown and united over the food.

“Everybody started talking about their food back home and sharing what their favorite food was,” Reyes Daza said. “What connected my group was their differences. I feel like that’s the most beautiful thing about the international students.”

Once ISO ended, Patel said that she was surprised by how much her group missed her — some came to her for advice and one started crying when they saw each other in the dining hall.

“I really wasn’t expecting how big of an impact I would be able to have on a group of people for such a short amount of time,” Patel said.

Quan Pham, a Vietnamese Medill first-year, said that even with the changes to ISO, he and some of his friends felt that it could have been more organized.

“On the schedule that we were given, there were activities planned every single day but there was still a lot of free time for us,” Pham said. “When it actually got to the time when activities were supposed to happen, a lot of it felt like it was put together at the last minute.”

Nonetheless, Pham said that his overall experience was a positive one.

“With everything that I’ve said about ISO, I still think that it’s a beneficial experience nonetheless,” Pham said. “It gave me time to move into my room, and relax and be by myself before Wildcat Welcome.”

Gelhoren agreed that the more relaxed structure of ISO allowed students to settle in before the hectic week that followed after.

“While [ISO’s] organization isn’t 100%, if it were 100% like Wildcat Welcome was, it would be very overwhelming,” Gelhoren said. “It’s basically just an adaptation period.”

With the help of ISO and IPAs, the approximately 300 international first-year students entered college a little more relaxed and a little more familiar with everything Northwestern and college-related.

Selfie of IPA Giovana Gelhoren and her group of international students on the ISO Chicago trip.