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Rotshak Dakup’s trip from Nigeria lasted two days. It was the first time Dakup had ever left his home country and, by the time his plane landed in St. Louis on that August day in 2013, he was tired, overwhelmed and overdue for a bit of stress relief.
That’s when he saw the group of friendly faces — including his older brother, Panshak — that made up the welcome party from Columbia College, which made the drive to greet Dakup and some of the college’s other international students as they started their journeys in a new country.
“I travel with many friends who went to other schools and they never got that,” says Dakup, now a senior Computer Science major with a minor in Mathematics. “You’ve just basically got to figure out your way from your country to campus.”
The staff at Columbia College’s International Center knows how difficult the transition can be for students coming to study in America. They have to learn how to live in a new country, adjust to a new academic structure and, for most, learn how to communicate in a new language and with a new set of cultural norms. It can be a frustrating, anxiety-laden and ultimately isolating experience.
The International Center is dedicated to making sure its students have all the support they need to be successful, whether it’s through helping with visa paperwork or coordinating activities to ease their assimilation into the
Columbia College community. It starts the moment they land.
“It’s just having a way of them knowing we’re here to welcome you, we care about you,” says Britta Wright, director of the International Center. “And hopefully you’ll have a great experience here.”
Even international students who know English well can have a hard time grasping the intricacies of conversation when interacting with teachers and fellow students.
Both Dakup and Anh Le, a graduate student from Vietnam who is in the Master of Arts in Teaching program, experienced that upon their arrival. Le spent her senior year of high school with a host family in Forsyth, Missouri, to brush up on her English before completing undergraduate work in central Missouri.
“I struggled with classes and to express myself, communicate with people,” Le says.
Leah Buretta Glenn, assistant director of the International Center, says there were around 125 international students registered for the Fall Semester at the Day Campus, the majority from China, Korea and Vietnam.
Some students are only here for a year to learn English, then return to their home countries to continue their schooling. For the rest, learning to express themselves in a new language sets an important foundation for their time at Columbia College.
The college pairs up students in its English for Academic Purposes program with American students for a semester-long “Cross-Cultural Mentors” program that includes weekly meetings and discussions in which both sides can learn from each other and the international students can refine their conversational English.
Gabrielle Mistretta, a senior Communications Studies major, paired up with partners from China, Brazil and Japan in her two years in the program.
“I didn’t try to dumb down my language or anything like that, because that’s not how the normal flow of conversation works,” she says. “I tried to keep it pretty even, asking questions and then talking about my experiences so they’d have a chance to hear how things are described, then give back the same.”
Dakup was extremely outgoing in Nigeria but says he felt more reserved during his early days in America. He worried about his ability to fit in with his new classmates. He even had his brother order food for him during his first week of school.
Panshak pushed Rotshak to throw himself into campus activities. The Resident Assistants and Community Consultants he met during orientation events inspired him. Wright encouraged him to join the Emerging Leaders Institute.
Now, Dakup is one of the most visible students on campus.
“It was just a lot of different people challenging me to not just sit down in my room and play video games all day but to kind of go out and do things,” Dakup says. “I wouldn’t have applied because, the first few days, I didn’t think I was maybe smart enough or good enough to compete with the American kids in class.”
For international students who don’t have a support structure in place, the first months in America can be lonely.
“We’ve had some students just completely shut down, where they can’t function because it’s so overwhelming,” Wright says. “They start making friends, become more confident in their communication skills, and that usually leads to good things.”
The International Center has a number of programs that help facilitate cultural conversations. The International
Extravaganza and International Dinner give students chances to show off customs and cuisine from their countries. Lunch Beyond Borders and International Coffee Hour events are opportunities for faculty, staff and students to have discussions in relaxed settings. The Global Village, a floor on Banks Hall, is an immersive experience for 30 international and American students living together. The International Club maintains the CouGarden and donates its yield to area refugees, along with going on nursing home visits in the community and working with students at Jefferson Middle School.
“We try to foster cultural competence and a global mindset through the programs that we do,” Buretta Glenn says. “Our students are looking for more than just their degree. They’re looking to get involved and make a difference.”