On her first day at college in a new country, Elli Stogiannou ’22 had a visitor.
“I was in my room, and Cheryl appeared in the hallway,” recalls Stogiannou, a first-year student from Greece.
Cheryl is Cheryl Yau ’19, one of three students who lead Pomona College’s International Student Mentor Program (ISMP), an organization that matches every international student with a mentor before they arrive on campus. The ISMP’s lively schedule of events – follow them on Facebook – includes weekly dinners, regular late-night snacks and an assortment of educational and advocacy efforts. The group also plans special activities for times like Thanksgiving or Family Weekend, when students from the U.S. are likely to be with their families but the trip is too long for many international students to be with theirs.
The welcoming process for new international students starts with emails from their mentors during the summer and continues on move-in day. As soon as Yau met Stogiannou, she called mentor Kaitlin Robertson ’21, a student from Jamaica, and “Kaitlin came in like two minutes,” Stogiannou remembers. “She helped me do my room, rearrange the furniture. We talked a bit about academics because I was kind of feeling anxious about that. It's one of the very vivid memories I have of the first day being here, and I really like that.”
An International Gathering
Pomona students come from 59 foreign countries, including some countries where students who are U.S. citizens were living abroad before enrolling. International students make up 11 percent of the student body.
“The only thing we have in common is that we’re not from here, but in a way that’s a powerful thing,” says Laura Haetzel ’19, a student from Germany and another of the three head mentors.
“When you think of international you would not think it’s something that unites, because everyone’s from a different identity,” says Noor Dhingra ’20, a student from India and the other head mentor. “But still I found it easy to bond over that.”
Some international students already have lived in multiple countries, traveled widely, attended international schools or even graduated from a U.S. high school. Others have no such experience.
“I was born and raised in Singapore and all my family, all my connections are there,” Yau says. “Coming here for college was my first real foray to the United States. I can never forget that I’m an international student here. All my experiences are filtered through that lens. I think that’s a very dominant part of my identity, and I feel really close to other international students and the program.”
That first outreach from another student can mean a lot.
“I think what I really needed, especially during the first semester, was to understand that I’m not really alone,” Stogiannou says. “I think by having someone from another country there, we understand that it’s not necessarily where you are from, but the fact that you are not from here.”
Some Translation Required
Being academically proficient in English doesn’t mean everything is immediately understood, even the simplest of greetings.
“People say, ‘What’s up?’” Dhingra says with a laugh. “I didn’t know what to do with that.”
Following American politics can be confounding, with U.S.-born students and professors sometimes unconsciously assuming an understanding of terms such as the First Amendment – shorthand for the constitutional guarantee of such rights as freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the U.S.
“Especially in humanities classes, I find there’s a lot of assumed baseline knowledge of discourse in American politics and American history,” Haetzel says. “Even football. Someone might try to explain something to you by referencing sports. It can be quite alienating. There’s a discussion going on and everyone seems to get it, because of their similar origin and background. I’m always happy when there’s another international student in the class; I feel like I’m not the only one bringing a different perspective.”
To try to bridge that gap, ISMP students teamed with Professor of Politics David Menefee-Libey, who led them through an informal introduction to U.S. government and politics. Another occasional offering is “America 101,” where students discuss some of the activist vocabulary in the U.S. that might not be familiar.
International students also get an introduction to the Internal Revenue Service: Students on F-1 visas are required to file a simple form with the IRS even if they did not earn any income. Those who have worked or received such payments as financial aid or funding from Pomona to support internships are required to complete a tax return. “Many people don’t know that,” Yau says. “Every time tax season comes, there’s always a flurry. We try to put out that information.” (I-Place, or International Place of The Claremont Colleges, provides assistance with access to software that helps students prepare the required forms.)
Mentors and Weekly Meet-Ups
This year, the ISMP’s head mentors matched 16 volunteer mentors with about 70 incoming international students. The program is “opt-out,” meaning each first-year international student gets a mentor unless they decline. The head mentors seek to match students with similar academic and other interests, often pairing students who are from different countries. (Students looking for a community from their home country can usually find it at the Oldenborg Center for Modern Languages and International Relations, which includes a dining hall where native speakers host daily language-learning tables in Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Russian and Spanish with a total of about 30 languages available weekly.)
Oldenborg is also home to a language-themed residence hall and an administrative staff that includes International Student Advisor Marilyn White. Across campus, the ISMP shares a large, nicely furnished lounge in the Clark V residence hall with another student group.
On most Monday nights, the lounge is an international student hangout. On Tuesdays, ISMP gathers for its weekly dinner at Frank Dining Hall, and every other Thursday there is a late-night “Snack” in the ISMP lounge, sometimes with treats from a students’ native country. (The homemade dumplings won’t soon be forgotten.) Faculty meet-and-greets are another popular offering.
A Home for the Holidays
For holidays and breaks when other students scatter, there are plentiful activities. Last Thanksgiving, when there were no classes Wednesday through Friday because of the holiday, ISMP hosted an ice-skating outing on Wednesday. On Thursday, the traditional holiday, there were opportunities to be matched with Pomona faculty or staff to experience a Thanksgiving dinner in their home, and on Friday there was a catered dinner co-hosted by ISMP and the FLI club, which is geared toward first-generation, low-income students.
International students sometimes go home with U.S. students or travel to experience another part of the country over breaks, and there are flexible campus housing options during breaks as well. Not only are time and distance an obstacle, but the cost of international travel also can be a factor for many, something not everyone realizes.
“Pomona does a great job with diversity of origin, socioeconomic diversity, a range of different backgrounds,” Haetzel says. “That’s very powerful, because in the U.S. people tend to stereotype international students as these very affluent people.
“That’s not everyone’s story, and it’s definitely not everyone’s story here at Pomona.”