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As Global Village, University Maps Out Success

ISSO, OMA Help Over 1,400 International Students Feel at Home on Campus

Students attend a Culture Shock Talk at UCrossing Photo by Ed Brennen
At the first Culture Shock Talk this fall at University Crossing, international students were able to discuss adjusting to life in the United States.

By Ed Brennen

Nibbling on free pizza on a sunny fall afternoon, 20 international students sat around a circle of tables at University Crossing and talked about adjusting to life in America.

“Someone asked me ‘What’s up?’ and I looked up in the sky. I didn’t know what they meant,” said one student, drawing smiles and understanding nods from the room.

“I’m used to going to the mall with my friends at 9 o’clock at night, but here everything closes so early,” said another student, eliciting more nods and smiles.

The dialogue is just what the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) had in mind when it launched the new Culture Shock Talk Series this fall — one of many programs and resources the university offers international students to help them feel more at home, succeed academically and, ultimately, land jobs.

“They’re missing their homes, their families, their food,” says OMA Coordinator of International Programs Allyson Lynch, who moderated the first talk of the monthly series. “It helps, talking to other students who are going through the same adjustments.”

The ISSO office at Cumnock Hall is busy with advising sessions Photo by Ed Brennen
The staff at the International Student and Scholars Office at Cumnock Hall advises as many as 30 students a day on immigration and academic compliance issues.

With more than 1,400 international students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs at the university this fall (accounting for nearly 8 percent of the total student population), the services provided by the OMA and the International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO) are in high demand.

“It’s not unusual for us to see 20 to 30 appointments per day,” says ISSO Executive Director of International Administration Maria Conley, whose six-person staff helps students from 60 countries navigate complex immigration and academic compliance issues from its second-floor offices at Cumnock Hall. 

“We offer drop-in advising hours four days a week, and if we offered it five, there would be people here then, too,” says Conley, who notes that there were only 350 international students at the university when she joined the ISSO nine years ago. 

Global Growth Curve

Thanks to a decade of steady growth, the university’s international student population (including certificate and non-degree programs) reached a record 1,444 in fall 2016. That number leveled off this fall, with 1,409 students enrolled (659 undergraduate, 750 graduate). The 2 percent dip is still better than the national trend, which has shown double-digit drops in international student enrollments at many U.S. colleges and universities in 2017.

Students attend a Culture Shock Talk at UCrossing Photo by Ed Brennen
International students talk about the cultural differences they have encountered during a Culture Shock Talk at University Crossing.

The decline is largely attributed to the air of uncertainty created by President Trump’s immigration policies, although Conley points out that an increase in federal regulations and compliance over the past two years has also played a role.

“Even before the Trump administration, things were leveling off. There are more things students have to check and abide by,” says Conley, who adds that STEM students from Middle Eastern countries face more hurdles when applying to research institutions like UMass Lowell, compared to liberal arts schools.

Business administration is once again the most popular major among UML’s international students this year, followed by computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. India sends the most students (385), followed by China (360) and South Korea (57). Also making the top 10 this fall are Saudi Arabia (34), Iran (30) and Pakistan (27).

Emeritus Prof. Jay Lam talks to international students about the importance of speaking English Photo by Ed Brennen
Jay Lam, emeritus professor of clinical microbiology and a member of Toastmasters, stresses the importance of speaking English well during a Culture Shock Talk.

To help this diverse group of students succeed, the ISSO works closely with several offices across campus, including the Graduate and Undergraduate Admissions, Human Resources, Student Affairs and the Global Student Success Program (a division of Navitas). With more international students taking advantage of UML’s expanding internship and co-op programs, Conley says the Career & Co-op Center is also an important ally.

“There are more legal steps that they need to take for work authorization, and we’re here to help them navigate that,” says Conley, who notes that for the first time this fall, master’s-level engineering students are eligible for full-time co-ops while on student visas.

The support doesn’t stop once international students receive their degrees, however. The ISSO offers advising up to 36 months after graduation, and nearly 500 recent grads are taking advantage of those services. The office also works with more than 100 of the university’s international faculty members and visiting researchers, helping them acquire necessary work visas and green cards.

Cross-cultural Campus

Until last year, Lynch ran all of the international student orientations and social activities through the ISSO. But to help better integrate international students into campus life, her role was strategically realigned to OMA and Student Affairs in the summer of 2016.

“I get to do the fun stuff,” says Lynch, who is organizing events such as apple picking and pumpkin carving this fall.

One of the most popular ways international and American students come together is through the OMA’s Pair-Up Program. Launched in 2015, the yearlong program matches one American student with two or three first-year international students based on common interests and majors. The program received a record 345 applications from international and U.S. students this year, resulting in a wait list for the first time.

International students volunteer at the Lowell Transitional Living Center Photo by Ed Brennen
International students volunteer at the Lowell Transitional Living Center, one of many university-sponsored activities to help build a sense of community.

“It’s a great way for our American students to learn about another culture firsthand,” Conley says, “and it’s a chance for our international students to make friends and practice their English. It gives them confidence.”

Of course, international students bring more than cultural diversity and academic talent to campus. According to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors 2016 report, there were more than 1 million international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in 2015-16. They made an estimated $35 billion impact on the U.S. economy.

In Massachusetts, which had the nation’s fourth highest international student population (59,436), international students contributed an estimated $2.3 billion to the state economy in 2015-16.

One of those students pumping dollars into the local economy is Manning School of Business freshman Jatin Mukesh, the student at the Culture Shock Talk who was surprised by how early the malls close. Born and raised in Dubai to parents of Indian descent, Mukesh says one of the reasons he chose UMass Lowell was to escape the big-city crowds.

“It’s been very good so far. Lowell feels like a nice, quiet town,” says Mukesh, who was on the waitlist for the Pair-Up Program and has already made new friends over billiards and ping pong at the Campus Rec Center. 

And Mukesh has quickly discovered one of the keys to embracing life in New England: He’s become a big Patriots fan.