Yunjia Zhou ’17 knew she’d be facing a period of adjustment when she left her home in China last year and arrived on the Vassar campus. “There was definitely a language barrier, and a social barrier,” Zhou says. “I heard references to American pop culture in the dorms all day, and I just didn’t get it.”
Zhou’s feelings of alienation were soon tempered, she says, by the layers of support the college provides to the more than 300 students from 61 countries on campus, starting with an orientation program before classes begin and continuing with a series of events throughout the year.
“I’m glad we have our own orientation because there is so much to learn about what resources are available for us,” Zhou says. “But there are so many of us now that you don’t feel that you stand out as being different – we are part of Vassar’s diversity, and we are made to feel welcome.”
Indeed, international students are becoming an increasingly common part of Vassar’s landscape. Their numbers have jumped by nearly 50 percent in the last seven years, with students from China leading the way, according to Andrew Meade, assistant dean for campus life and international services. Currently there are 75 students from Mainland China and another eight from Hong Kong, at least four times as many as there were less than a decade ago, Meade says.
While programs run by the Office of International Services cater to students from all countries, the college has made a special effort to help acclimate those from China and other parts of Asia. Using a grant from an alumna from Thailand, Chotiya Sophonpanich Ahuja ’96, the college established a peer mentoring program that links Asian first-year students with upperclassmen. “It’s a way for our older Asian students to take the freshmen under their wings,” Meade says.
Those whose first language is not English face some unique challenges when their classes begin, Meade says. “It takes them a lot longer to read their assignments, and many of them are hesitant to speak up in class because of the language barrier,” he says. “We encourage these students to use the Writing Center and to take advantage of faculty office hours.”
Typically, the most effective help young international students receive is from other international students, and Meade credits the Vassar International Students Association (VISA) with making sure all foreign students on campus feel they are a part of the Vassar community. “VISA does a great job keeping everyone in touch,” he says.
VISA President Faith Adongo ’16 says she had less trouble adjusting to life on campus than many other international students because her older sister attended Vassar, but the transition wasn’t seamless. “I went to a boarding school in Kenya where the teaching was done mainly with lectures, and the learning you do at Vassar is quite interactive,” she says. “But there are many cultural differences for all of us, and I’ve enjoyed planning events and seeing that all international students get the support they need. I think international students tend to befriend each other because we have many of the same issues, being so far from home.”
Adongo says one of her favorite annual events is Kaleidoscope, a celebration of Vassar’s diverse cultures that VISA and interns at the Office of International Services organize every year. Held every November in the Students’ Building. Kaleidoscope features a variety of international cuisine, including a dessert contest, a talent show and photography competition and a colorful flag ceremony, when students from every nation currently represented at the college carry their flag on stage and recite a quirky fact about their country.
The winner of the dessert contest for her green tea mousse, Cindy Liu ‘16, a first-generation Chinese-American from Brooklyn, says she enjoys participating in Kaleidoscope. “It’s something I go to every year, but this was the first time I entered a dessert,” she says. A member of the Asian Students Alliance, Liu says the club is dedicated to finding ways to make international students feel welcome. “We have a dinner for the Asian students every year, and we’re looking for other ways to expand what we do.”
A participant in the talent show, Sung Jim Kim ’16 of the Korean drumming team Vassar Sori, said he didn’t know much about the ancient art until he joined the ensemble. “I had to come all the way to Vassar to learn something about my own culture,” Kim says, adding his transition from Korea to the campus was relatively smooth. “I really feel people are pretty much the same all over the world, and I didn’t have any trouble fitting in here,” he says. “It’s a pretty close-knit community.”
Like Kim, Christina Yang ’17, of Singapore, says that while she experienced a period of adjustment academically (“I was coming from a rigid British system to a school that offers plenty of flexibility and student-faculty interaction.”), she felt she belonged to the Vassar community fairly quickly. “I’m a member of the Southeast Asian Student Alliance, and this year I joined the field hockey team,” Yang says. “Those things made me feel like I was part of the college – I’ve made a lot of good friends.”
Yael Schwartz ’15, one of only two students from Israel, says she too found camaraderie by participating in sports. Schwartz has been a member of the women’s rugby team for three years and was a co-captain this year. “I haven’t been especially active in international students’ clubs, but I come to Kaleidoscope every year – it’s great to see so many American students there every year -- and I’ve become close with the other rugby players. There’s a sense of openness and tolerance here, so I didn’t feel left out when I got here. It’s been a great four years.”
One event that bonds many of the international students began in 2006, shortly after Meade was appointed to his job. He noticed that many of the student remained on campus during Thanksgiving break because their homes were too far away and they had no nearby relatives or family friends in the area. So Meade and his wife, Lila, invited them all to Thanksgiving dinner at their home in Poughkeepsie. “Lila and I provide the setting, and teams of students pitch in and make all the food. We set up the garage with ping pong and foosball, and after dinner, we all gather in the living room to talk about what we’re thankful for. It’s quite a party.”
Plans for the party had to change this year when a snowstorm knocked out power in Meade’s neighborhood. When it became clear on Thanksgiving morning that power would not be restored, the more than 60 students and alumnae/i shifted gears and organized the dinner on campus. The turkeys were cooked in some kitchens in the townhouses, cheesecakes were made in the Aula, other culinary chores were done in the Campus Center, and dinner was served at 5 p.m. in the Campus Center’s Multi-purpose Room. “We were cleaned up and out the door before midnight,” Meade says. “It felt like we had been part of a miracle, one borne of waves of people doing whatever it took to create a memorable feast and evening together.”
Adongo, the president of VISA, says she wasn’t surprised Meade and the students found a way to make Thanksgiving a success. “Andrew oversees everything and keeps us all together and informed and made to feel welcome from Day One,” she says. “I keep forgetting he’s a dean because he’s such a dad to all of us.”
Photos by Karl Rabe