Community building has always been integral to Swarthmore’s orientation for international students. But never more so than this year, with a global pandemic presenting virtual and literal roadblocks.
“Since most of our international students may feel isolated in their own countries,” says Jennifer Marks-Gold, assistant dean and director of international student programs, “it was really important for us to help connect them to peers who will hopefully become lifelong friends.”
Held daily last week over Zoom, the program thoroughly engaged and empowered the 62 international students and Americans living abroad from the Class of 2024 who participated, says Marks-Gold. At the heart of the sessions was a simple message: You are not alone.
“International students grapple with a variety of challenges at Swarthmore, and international orientation helps us alleviate those challenges and set the foundation for our international student community on campus,” says Laura Hirai ’22, an Arabic studies and Spanish special major from London, England, and a student leader for international orientation.
The program came together over the course of the summer, with Marks-Gold and International Student Coordinator Ryan MacMorris navigating time differences to collaborate each week with Hirai and Max Finkelstein ’22, a fellow student leader for orientation. Hirai and Finkelstein are also co-presidents of the i20 Swarthmore International Club.
The organizers determined which elements of a typical orientation would translate to a virtual experience, deciding to emphasize small-group peer interactions.
“We took many steps to encourage social interaction, and also organized activities requiring different types of communication to keep things interesting — a potential challenge with online programs,” says Finkelstein, an honors biochemistry and mathematics special major from Singapore. “A lot of brainstorming went into this.”
Also key to the program were an interview Marks-Gold conducted with a current student on the four stages of culture shock, and videos from the student orientation leaders on how they overcame it.
“We wanted to give students that realization of 'Oh … it’s OK that I feel this way,’” says Marks-Gold.
MacMorris also gathered information and presented sessions that students could watch asynchronously, on topics such as personal banking and the resources of the Writing Center, to complement live sessions on issues like visa and immigration policy. But the organizers made a point of keeping things fun, building in time for breakout rooms and giving each student a Zoom background of a notable Swarthmore alum.
Despite the challenging circumstances, it was a successful and seamless transformation of the program.
“I had some doubts about an orientation being held online,” one participant wrote, “but this definitely exceeded my expectations. I got to talk to students I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise under current circumstances, get a feel of what it’s like to live at Swarthmore, make friends virtually, and feel more comfortable around my fellow classmates. I feel way more welcomed by the Swat community.”
Marks-Gold invited every international first-year student who was planning on coming to campus this semester or deferring until the spring. All but a handful of the 66 international students who were accepted to this year’s class participated in orientation.
How many actually arrive on campus, though, remains to be seen.
“Even if they can get their visa, their borders may be closed,” says Marks-Gold. “And then there are some who wonder what happens if they make it here and the College is forced to close — could they get back home?”
To help ease those and other concerns the students are facing, Marks-Gold held six Zoom meetings over the summer. Although their content was centered on stressful topics, these sessions had a silver lining.
“The interesting thing is, I have never felt a stronger connection to a group of incoming students,” says Marks-Gold. “I feel like I already know them more than any previous group.”