For many international students, leaving their home country to pursue higher education in another country is already a stressful experience filled with much uncertainty.
Throw in a pandemic, and the resulting hybrid and virtual classes, along with social-distancing requirements, and that experience becomes all the more daunting.
“International students also expressed anxiety about the loss of the traditional on-campus university experience and the sense of belonging that is created through person to person interaction and an engaged learning environment full of opportunities to exchange diverse ideas and perspectives with their peers,” said Adam Julian, director of international student and scholar services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in an email.
To try to address this concern, UMBC and Towson University provided resources for international students to help them cope with life at school, far way from home during the coronavirus pandemic.
At UMBC, the Center for Global Engagement launched the Global Ambassadors Program in September 2020 connecting incoming international students with returning international students.
Returning international students, or “Global Ambassadors,” serve as peer mentors to incoming international students to answer questions and offer advice and insights from their own experiences at the university.
This academic year, 10 graduate and undergraduate students from five countries — India, Iran, Nigeria, Russia and Zimbabwe — served as peer mentors to students from around the world.
Although the idea for the program preceded the pandemic, university staff said it has assisted international students in learning how to navigate the university from a distance.
“A lot of our current students had to transition to studying online really quickly, but it was a more familiar transition because they were already familiar with the practices and life at the university,” said Natalie Lobb, graduate international student support specialist in the Center for Global Engagement.
“A lot of these other students who started online weren’t as familiar with that, so our ambassadors were really able to help answer any questions that these students might have had.”
Ashuthosh Chandramouli, 26, a second-year graduate student studying engineering management, is serving as a Global Ambassador at UMBC.
Knowing firsthand what it is like to come to the university from another country — in his case, India — he said he has been able to use his experience to instruct others.
“[The program] is a wonderful experience because I get to meet a lot of new international students,” he said. “I’m able to guide them with my knowledge and help them transition from their home country to the United States of America.”
Sana Sharma, 24, of India, is also serving as a Global Ambassador at the university.
Having studied at the university as an undergraduate and now as a graduate student, she said she has gained a lot of experience and insight that she can use to guide other international students.
Living off-campus, she said the program has helped her stay connected to other international students.
“I actually made a lot of connections because of this program and I have guided a lot of students on how to find off-campus housing, nearby,” she said. “[Some of the students] and I have found common ground and have connected and play badminton together or have found other common interests together.”
Chiranjib Dutta, 40, a graduate student studying engineering management is being mentored by Chandramouli.
Coming to the U.S. from India, he said the program has helped him adjust to his master’s program and the university.
“I had some vision of the future, but not everything was clear,” he said. “The Global Ambassadors Program really helped me to make my ideas more clear.”
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Like UMBC, Towson University has provided programs and resources to help international students stay connected during the pandemic.
Some of the offerings include delivering multiple virtual town hall sessions to address immigration requirement updates; boosting collaboration with campus partners to ensure housing availability for students who could not leave the country; enhancing virtual services and support programs; increasing communication, process-related workshops and virtual advising appointments, and offering opportunities for face-to-face meetings once health policies permitted, according to the International Student and Scholar Office.
Gail Gibbs, director of the office, said it is crucial for the university to provide guidance and support to international students during this time.
“This past year has been an unprecedented time for all our students and presented challenges that many struggled to overcome,” she wrote in an email. “Especially for students who were unable to return to their home country and family or for those without strong personal networks in the country, staying connected was critical to their survival and continued academic success.
“The resulting issues that students faced, and which were often reported to us, varied greatly,” she added. “For many, the mental and emotional toll, additional financial burdens and isolation were often the most taxing. The outreach, guidance and support provided helped to foster a connectedness that significantly aided them and helped them to overcome those challenges.”
Kristina Karp, 22, of Ukraine, is a senior undergraduate student studying communications at Towson University. As an international student she said it has been helpful connecting with other international students who understand her experience.
“I feel like some international students felt isolated during this pandemic,” she said. “It’s easier to get along with people who you can relate to and it always feels good when you have somebody to talk to.”