International students build new bonds with Elon, fellow students during orientation

This year, Elon welcomed to campus 38 new international students from 21 countries. 

At the start of a new academic year, Elon welcomed to campus 38 new international students who traveled to campus from 21 countries. With the addition of these students, there are now 134 international students at Elon representing 47 countries.

While international student orientation is the first time on campus for many of these students, it is not where their Elon journey begins: It starts with international admissions. For Mandy Herrera, associate director of international admissions, that means traveling for 12 weeks and recruiting from more than 30 countries. She said she and Hebe Fuller, associate dean and director of international admissions, “carry Elon’s mission and community with us on the road.”

Why do these two travel so far for Elon? “The key to recruiting such a diverse class is to go face-to-face,” according to Fuller. The demanding travel schedule pays off for Elon, which is committed to tripling international student enrollment as part of the 2020 strategic plan.

“At the forefront we know it’s all about the relationships we build,” said Herrera. Those relationships translate to pulling together a culturally rich and diverse international cohort.

Their work pays off. Gregor Grassie ’23, who is from Scotland and Hong Kong, chose Elon after meeting Herrera. “I felt wanted. Elon made it clear that I was wanted – they made me feel special,” said Grassie. “I knew I was going to a place where I’ll be accepted for who I am.”

New international students and their families were welcomed to campus for international student orientation three days before new student orientation. The extra time allows for guidance specific to the international adjustment and is packed with activities to support the transition, introduce students and families to Elon, and start to build relationships among the international community.

International Student Orientation begins a few days before Move-In Day to provide more time to focus on the international adjustment.

​Orientation began with the Welcome Breakfast, where Elon Admissions and the Global Education Center (GEC) officially welcomed the newest international cohort.

In addition to introducing students and families to the GEC, international student orientation included sessions on immigration compliance, Elon culture, and resources across campus. The barbeque, a favorite activity for students, marked the transition from international student orientation to new student orientation. A flash thunderstorm forced the barbeque to be moved indoors but didn’t dampen spirits.

Three Class of 2019 international graduates started their friendships at this event after arriving at Elon. Sheefali Kavthankar from South Africa, Ozelle Bower from Fiji and Carmen Rivera from Spain met at international student orientation, became friends at the barbeque and remained best friends all four years at Elon.

Their advice for the class of 2023 is to not be embarrassed by the language barrier. “Just be yourself and don’t worry what others will think,” said Rivera.

“The connections you make here are important,” said Bower.

“You might make your best friends here,” added Kavthankar.

Whether students will follow in the footsteps of these three, international student orientation is a special time to build meaningful relationships.

Kristen Aquilino, associate director for international student services, has been preparing for international student orientation throughout the past year, but hasn’t been working alone. In addition to the dozens of offices that assist in these critical few days, Toby Finizio, graduate apprentice for international student and scholar services, and three international student ambassadors (ISAs) have assisted in the planning for months. ISA Irisgzel Cheong ’21, who grew up in Beijing, China, says the work is worth the payoff. “I get to be the first face they see on campus and forever be someone they can rely on,” said Cheong.

After the start of classes, international students gathered in the Global Education Center for the Welcome, Welcome Back Reception.

​ISA Zoe Budsworth ’20, who is from England, feels the same way. Her favorite part is “watching all the students bond and build community together.”

Another highlight for students is building relationships beyond the international community at new student orientation. For Grassie, that meant befriending his orientation leader, Diana Pinel ’20, who is from Honduras.

“The orientation leaders were the best part,” Grassie said. “Not only did we get to meet new people from around the world, but we got to meet Elon students from different years, too.”

Pinel chose to be an orientation leader, having gone through international student orientation herself, because she loves “being that first connection.” For her, orientation provides the opportunity for new students to learn from others. “If there’s anything I can give you, it’s my experience,” said Pinel. Those first connections are critical. “You’re not the same person you were 24 hours ago,” said Pinel.

Within those first few days of orientation, Grassie “broke the ice for everyone” in a big way: wearing a kilt, and waving a Scottish flag, Grassie was hypnotized in front of the Class of 2023.

“My heart was pounding, but it was really enjoyable,” he said. “I was nervous coming in as an international student, but it took the pressure off a wee bit for everyone.”

First-week festivities culminated in the Welcome, Welcome Back reception. Here, international exchange, degree-seeking, and business dual-degree students gathered among international faculty and staff to kick off the 2019-20 year.

As Elon is #1 in study abroad fourteen years in a row, global learning happens in every corner of the world for Elon students. But the heart of global learning happens right here on campus. International students bring with them a wealth of perspectives, experiences, and understanding – and that creates powerful learning.