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Volunteers Help Foreign Students Feel Welcome At Michigan Tech

By Danny Messinger

HOUGHTON (WWJ) -- Seasoned overseas travelers know the challenges faced when stepping off the plane in a new country. Signs and conversations are suddenly gibberish. A host of confusing customs redefine your every move. And, how will you even get to town from the airport?

These challenges pose almost no problems for Michigan Technological University's newest international students-- all thanks to the efforts of the International Programs and Services's (IPS) arrivals program.

Over the two to three weeks preceding the school year's start, about 250 adventurous international students fly from their home countries to Houghton -- many having spent 20 or more hours on a plane in transit.

"From the moment they get off the plane, our team of about 20 student volunteers works to make them feel thrilled to be here," said Cassy Tefft, international admissions coordinator. "We do everything we can to make them feel welcome."

That means quite a bit of work and impressive coordination. New students not only need transportation from the airport to campus, but also help finding (and getting keys to) their housing, becoming acclimated to the community and a trip to the store to pick up necessities that couldn't be packed in their luggage.

Groups of students fly in on every plane that lands in Houghton. Flights can hold anywhere from two or three new international students to up to 40.

For night arrivals, when the residence hall reception desks are already closed, IPS brings new students to the Canterbury House, where volunteers are waiting to bring the newcomers to their various accommodations both on and off campus, beginning with a trip to Public Safety & Police Services to retrieve their' room keys so they can get into their new homes late at night.

"On flights with large numbers of new students, we rent a bus to bring them down to campus," said Tefft. "But on flights with fewer students, we bring a few vans. That way, we can group students into vans based on where they'll be living. We can have a Wadsworth Hall van, a Daniell Heights van, an off-campus van. It makes things go much more smoothly for the students."

Vienna Chapin, a third-year scientific and technical communications student, agrees that there is plenty to do to make sure new students feel at home. As one of the team's volunteers, she helps greet new students at the airport, bring them to campus and orient them over their first few days there.

"I've actually had the opportunity to host two international students before—the first during my first year and again during my sophomore year," she said. "Both students were from France. Over the two years of hosting, I not only learned about French culture, but I also learned about several other cultures from other friends they made at Tech. Meeting new international students can really create some life-long friendships."

Fangming (Cathy) Liu, a master's student studying environmental policy, can speak firsthand to the importance of the international arrivals program. As an international student herself, Liu says the team made all the difference when she first got to Houghton. Now, she serves as one of the arrival team's many student volunteers.

"I'm from Shandong Province, China—about two hours' maglev train ride south of Beijing," she said. "When I got here for the first time, I felt both excited and wary. I volunteer because I want to keep having that experience—and make them feel welcome."

Liu says she certainly had her reservations when flying into the Upper Peninsula in 2009.

"I came on the midnight flight," she said. "It was so dark and scary. All I saw was forest. But once we got on campus, I felt much better."

Of course, even once new international students are settled into their housing, IPS's work is far from over. For the week leading up to the start of class, a host of programs help Tech's newest international students adjust to life at Tech.

"We set up a welcome room for international students in the Memorial Union Building," said Chapin. "There are tables set up with information about local businesses, steps to take to confirm students' schedules, and representatives from local banks and stores."

Considering the amount of courage it takes to study in a foreign country, Chapin says helping the new students acclimate is the least she can do.

"Every international student I've ever met is extremely genuine and sincere," she said. "Being from the UP, it's my duty to introduce these students to my homeland."

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