By Leah Jones, Features Editor
Diversity lies at the heart of the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ thrumming campus. Like a heart, it pumps the life-giving blood of the university, circulating ideas between different people with different backgrounds, bringing oxygen and life to all of the individual cells which make up UMSL’s campus.
International students are an important part of this system, since they bring with them unique cultural experiences and backgrounds. However, not all UMSL students are aware of some of the blockages that international students may face including language barriers, culture shock, and most recently, the presidential executive order which cast students’ visa statuses into ambiguous territory. Despite these potential hurdles, UMSL offers a variety of services to International students to keep its diversity arteries free from clots.
“It seems like a lot of work to get over here, and to have that in jeopardy might seem unfair,” said domestic student Michael Holmes, junior, English.
Located in the Millennium Student Center 261, the International Student and Scholar Services (ISS) offers international students a wide array of services. Rebecca Kehe, an International Student Advisor at UMSL, said that ISS helps students with advising and transcript evaluation, but that they also provide international students with cultural services, personal services, academic services, and visa and travel services.
ISS ensures that students understand the rules, regulations, and rights which their visas grant them by working individually with students and offering workshops on the different visa types. J-Visas grant visiting faculty, scholars, and students entry into the United States to study with the understanding that these students will be going back their home countries to complete their projects or work at some point. Students who come into the country for shorter terms, such as study abroad opportunities, enter the United States on these visas. F-Visas grant students entry into the United States for longer periods of time, enabling students to complete full bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in the United States. These visas stipulate that students must be enrolled in school full-time, and that they may only work on-campus jobs for 20 hours per week.
ISS helps students navigate the quagmire of rules, regulations, and red tape around off-campus internships and when students need to work more than 20 hours per week to support themselves. Students on F-1 visas can participate in Optional Practical Training (OPT) to complete internships, while students on J visas can participate in a similar program called Academic Training (AT).
“The difference is that for a [student working under] OPT, they can change their visa while they are in the United States. With AT, they cannot transition to a long-term employment visa once the academic training ends; they have to go home,” Kehe explained.
It can be complicated for J-Visa holders to change the status of their visa while they are in the country if they wish to seek employment in the United States, Kehe continued. They must apply through the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) while they are here, or they must leave the country for a period of time and reapply for a different visa type.
ISS works with students through MyGateway and social media outlets to tell them about their workshops and to remind them about upcoming deadlines. The ISS website guides students through difficult and confusing procedures, such as applying for a visa and links them to internship and immigration forms and provides them with contacts for Customs and Border Protections. Per the workshop with Counseling Services and the UMSL Police Department on January 31 about Trump’s executive orders in late January, ISS also has added a news and updates page to their website to inform students of updates as new information becomes available.
Since students must have health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, ISS provides an ACA compliant plan through their office, and helps students navigate the health insurance website. If students must go to the hospital, ISS also works with the students and health insurance companies to makes sure that the costs of procedures are covered.
International students also receive help with obtaining and understanding their health insurance plans through ISS. “If you are familiar with healthcare around the world, it’s a lot easier. Most of them are national healthcare systems, so they can walk into a hospital and they pay ten dollars for a broken bone or something like that,” Kehe said. “They [international students] do not really have to worry about co-pays, or co-insurance [in their home countries]. Those concepts students don’t know when they first get here.”
In addition, ISS employs an accountant who has studied tax law for non-residents and international students and helps students file employment paper work and tax paperwork. Kehe said that they also work with students who may be struggling academically, including students who may not understand their professors.
While ISS helps international students to navigate complicated federal systems such as immigration policies and healthcare, they also help students deal with cultural and personal advising. Kehe said that many of the staff in ISS have lived abroad at some point, and can sympathize with many of the tribulations that many international students go through.
“We do deal with culture shock,” Kehe said. “[But, we also deal with] how culture shock manifests itself differently in different cultures. Students from western cultures will sometimes come in and they will be very expressive [about] how they are feeling…Students from some eastern cultures, are not as expressive verbally, and so when they are experiencing culture shock, sometimes it manifests itself physically…because they are not able to get it off of their chest.”
ISS offers programs to acclimate students to their new environment and assuage some of this culture shock. They host International Education Day, on which they invite international students and study abroad alumni to come to Jefferson City for tours and meet with state senators and representatives to talk about the importance of international education. Study Missouri sponsors the initiative to encourage Missouri institutions to be welcoming to international students and to encourage Missourians to study abroad. ISS also hosts events during international education week, and helps student organizations work with the Office of Student Involvement.
The International House is a joint venture between ISS and Residential life that gives international students a place to build community on campus. “For a lot of the international students…they say being here on campus, living in a dorm, is comfortable, but it doesn’t feel like home, and there really is no house…that students feel like is theirs,” Kehe said. “The iHouse being a student run initiative, many students feel like that’s [their] home.”
The iHouse welcomes both international and domestic students, and holds events such as a Mardi Gras Night and an international fashion show. “It’s open to everyone, but it’s a community that is internationally-minded,” Kehe said.
International students can acclimate and make friends through the MOSAIC Buddy program. “[International students] have that first American friend when they are here [through the MOSAIC program” Kehe said.
UMSL students apply and receive training to assist one to four new international students in their transition to life at UMSL and in St. Louis. Groups have gone to the landmarks around the city such as the St. Louis Zoo, Forest Park, and the Galleria, though they also familiarize international students with more practical things, like the Metrolink. The UMSL buddies email their international students over the summer to answer any question they might have and pick them up at the airport when they arrive.
Cultural clubs around campus also offer international students the opportunity to meet friends and create support systems. The China-American Corner, the Chinese Student Organization, the German Students Association, the Hispanic and Latino Association, the International Students Club, the Japan-American Student Association, the Pan-African Student Association, the Vietnamese Student Association, the Muslim Students Association, the Jewish Student Association, and any of the Christian organizations on campus can all provide international students with a sense of community. Other non-student groups, such as International Students Incorporated, also work to provide international students with a sense of community and belonging.
International and domestic students can also be on the lookout for community and support in Lingua, a new student organization that has just taken root on UMSL’s campus. Amanda Rawls, senior, modern languages and computer science, and president of the new organization, helped to arrange the group’s first meeting on Friday, February 10 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in the Student Government Association Chambers. Dr. Birgit Noll, Chair of the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies, came up with the idea for the initial organizing event. Dr. Violaine White, assistant teaching professor of French, will serve as the faculty advisor for Lingua.
“We seek to celebrate that we have a diverse community, and increase awareness of the contributions that international members of our community (faculty and student) have made,” Rawls said. “Our intention is to help increase mutual learning and sharing between cultures by helping people build relationships with those from other backgrounds.”
Rawls said that though the first meeting was fairly small, the group generated big ideas. Representatives from Gender Studies, Languages and Cultural Studies, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, International Friends, the International Student Club, Sigma Tau Gamma, and the Graduate Writers Association all attended the first meeting.
“With the messages coming from members of the university administration (Chancellor Tom George, Dean Yasbin, the Faculty Senate, etc.) we realized that something like this needs to organized by more than just Lingua. This is a diverse and inclusive community that values its international members, both students and faculty. It is my personal hope that we can show this loud and clear to everyone in our community and anyone watching what happens at UMSL,” Rawls said.
For students who still feel overwhelmed, Kehe said that ISS also refers students to Counseling Services, located in MSC 131. With the uncertainty about visa statuses and how things like OPT will be effected, Counseling Services has reached out to both the international and domestic student communities on campus.
“We do work hard to make sure that all students know that we are interested and available to assist during difficult times. For international students at this especially challenging time, we are continuing to work with International Studies to be a visible presence and source of support to students who are concerned about the impact of the changes. We continue to hope that our efforts to be more engaged and involved with campus through events like the presentation this week lets all students know of our commitment to be a source of support and caring in difficult times,” said Chris Sullivan, clinical director for counseling services.
Kehe said that ISS also sometimes refers students to the Office of Multicultural Student Services. Though not specifically geared towards international students, Multicultural Student Services works to provide academic and personal services to students with a wide range of cultural experiences and backgrounds. They offer career and professional development, academic coaching, leadership development programs, personalized academic support, social and cultural activities, a speaker series, free tutoring and study groups, scholarship opportunities, study areas and a computer lab, as well as mentoring opportunities for peers, faculty, and staff. This semester, they are hosting their “Commit to Success” workshops, with themes such as “Midterm Motivation,” personal growth modules, and different citation styles.
Students may also go to Student Retention Services (SRS), located in MSC 225. SRS’s stated mission on their homepage is to “foster an environment of accountability, support, and achievement that challenges students, faculty, and staff to become active agents and advocates for student persistence and degree completion.” SRS offers support services such as, Academic Advising, Academic Support Centers, Campus Testing Centers, Personal and Professional Development, and the Veterans Center, which are open to all UMSL students.
While international students at UMSL face obstacles that do not affect many domestic students, there are a plethora of services available on UMSL’s campus to help acclimate these students and keep the life-blood of innovation – diversity – flowing through UMSL’s hallways and courtyards.
“While the school provides many services, it is up to the student body to make them know they are welcome here, despite whatever policies have come and may come from our current government in Washington D.C.,” Rawls said.
For more information on International Student and Scholar Services, visit http://www.umsl.edu/services/intelstu/ .
For more information on the Office of Multicultural Student Services, visit http://www.umsl.edu/~mcraa/History.html .
For information on Counseling Services, visit http://www.umsl.edu/services/counser/Visit%20Us/index.html and call (314) 516-5711 on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. to make an appointment.