Aria Parikh ’20 vividly remembers her first day at Swarthmore, the jet lag, and the fear that set in once everything she knew was halfway across the world.
But the feeling “melted away” at international student orientation, when she realized everyone felt the same apprehension. There was no turning back—literally.
“My mom likes to tell the story of when it came time for her to say bye and return to India: I didn’t look back or cry as I walked back to my new friends,” says the peace & conflict studies and psychology major from Mumbai.
“I have felt completely at home at Swarthmore from the first day I got here,” Parikh adds, “and I owe that entirely to my orientation leaders.”
Parikh got the chance to pay it forward last month as one of 15 orientation leaders to welcome new international students to Swarthmore. Beginning five days before the main orientation, the program showed a record-high 72 participating students the ins and outs of Swarthmore and provided them a little more time to adjust to their new surroundings.
Thinking back on his own first days, Temba Mateke ’21, of Livingstone, Zambia, recalls the rush of independence.
“It suddenly occurred to me that [my family] was thousands of miles away and that I could do whatever I wanted, without them knowing,” says Mateke, who helped lead orientation, “but also that if anything went wrong, it would be for me to solve alone.”
For other students, it’s the little things: How to open a bank account. How to interpret Fahrenheit. How to order at Wawa.
“There’s lots for international students to figure out,” says Terrence Xiao ’20, an engineering and environmental studies major from Beijing, who also helped lead orientation. “International orientation is a chance for us to share, explore, and celebrate this unique aspect of our identity, and help the incoming students recognize and resolve these issues.”
Led by Jennifer Marks-Gold, director of the International Student Center, the orientation process walks students through the array of support available to them at the College. It offers sessions on academic planning, campus and travel safety, visa and legal status, and getting a job on campus.
More importantly, however, the orientation fosters community. From the student-chosen Disney theme to karaoke night to a bonfire, students had ample opportunity to connect and unwind.
“It’s a chance to bond with one another before being introduced to the rest of their class,” says Marks-Gold. “Many of them make friendships those first few days that last their whole time here at Swarthmore.”
Marks-Gold and her office continue to support new international students throughout the year, with follow-up sessions, a student-to-student support system, social and educational programming, and a weekly group dinner. They also have an open-door policy and are highly attuned to students’ needs.
“Being a mother, I have an innate sense when someone might need to talk,” says Marks-Gold. “And we collaborate closely with [Dean’s Office] staff to make sure students get any support that they need.”
With the increasingly tense political climate, Marks-Gold remains vigilant about keeping international students abreast of the news and what might be coming next. She meets with them individually or in groups to ease concerns and/or figure out how new developments could affect them.
“I want them to know that I understand how difficult things can feel now,” she says, “but also that we’re always here for them.”
Amplifying that message are the international orientation leaders, many of whom also belong to the i20 Swarthmore International Club. Orientation leader is an unpaid position for which the students have to apply, and one that several of them, including Parikh and Xiao, take on more than once.
“These are students who love Swarthmore, and they do a great job,” says Marks-Gold, pointing to the excellent feedback from incoming students. “By the time orientation is over, nobody wants to leave.”
For the orientation leaders, it’s the chance to make new friendships and memories.
“One that will stay with me is seeing all the international kids really just let their hair down at the karaoke night, regardless of skill or language,” says Parikh.
Adds fellow orientation leader Hari Srinivasulu ’21, of Chennai, India: “I’m leaving this with memories of a lot of funny inside jokes, memes, and late-night conversations with friends.”
Parikh also appreciated hearing that her efforts helped make the College “feel a little more like home” for the incoming students. She can’t help but trace those sentiments back to her own first days, affirming her Swarthmore experience.
“I can’t think of a single person that didn’t support me in those first few weeks and the rest of my time here,” says Parikh. “My time at Swarthmore has been easy because of all of these people and their support.”