New international students arrive to campus a few days early for International Student Orientation, a time to build community while learning about life in the United States and at Elon.
Elon University has welcomed 57 new visa-holding international students to campus to begin the 2021-22 academic year.
They join the international community at Elon, which comprises more than 400 international students from 75 countries – including around 130 visa-holding students, around 250 dual citizens and more than 30 Americans who had been living overseas.
Director of International Student Services Kristen Aquilino believes the journeys these students undertook to Elon speaks to the commitment of Elon’s international community. For many students, that journey was marred by delays due to the pandemic and fluid visa and immigration processes. For every student, the journey has been fraught with complications and ambiguity.
At the International Welcome Breakfast, Aquilino remarked, “We’re so thankful you stuck it out and persevered, and that you were dedicated to coming here. I just want to say, ‘thank you,’ on behalf of all of us, and that we are equally dedicated to making sure you have a wonderful experience here.”
The arrival of international students to campus kicks off International Student Orientation, three days of adjusting to life in the United States, learning about Elon and working through jet lag.
International Student Orientation is a campus-wide welcoming, supported by the Isabella Global Education Center, New Student Programs, Admissions, Residence Life, and other key offices.
For Hebe Fuller, associate dean of admissions and director of international admissions, this is a gratifying time to connect in person with students and families, many of whom she has introduced to Elon. “Many of these students I met years ago – literally two or three years ago as sophomores and juniors, and some even longer if they’ve deferred, so the buildup has been even more significant,” Fuller said.
International student ambassadors work to build international community at Elon and are among the first to welcome international students to campus. Wenyi “Winnie” Yang ’23, an nternational student ambassador from Beijing, China, knows firsthand how important relationships are to building community. As an international student ambassador, she pays this forward by helping new students make connections.
As Yang welcomed a student, Jingyi, she noticed Chinese characters on her phone. Yang asked, “Wait, are you Chinese?” When Jingyi said yes, Winnie said, “Oh my god, I’m also Chinese!” and introduced herself in Mandarin. As they got to know each other, Yang and Jingyi learned they both attended high school in the United States. They also discovered that Jingyi’s hometown, Zaozhuang, a small city in the Shandong Province, is next to the village where Yang’s grandparents live.
“She was like, ‘You are the first person I’ve met in the U.S. that knows exactly where my hometown is,’” said Yang.
Among sessions to help students adjust to life at Elon, understand insurance, visa and immigration information, and form connections in the international community, a highlight of International Student Orientation is the Welcome Breakfast. This event marks the ceremonial transition of primary student support from Admissions to the Isabella Cannon Global Education Center and includes welcome remarks from President Connie Ledoux Book.
Book welcomed international students and families by sharing some of Elon’s global history and perspective on “why we highly value global education.”
“At the opening ceremony in 1889, the first president of Elon said as they were putting the shovel into the ground that we are building a college for the world,” Book said. “That has been the inspiration of the university to engage globally.”
Book also praised the students’ courage and sense of adventure. “We know it took a lot to get here, so we’re particularly grateful,” Book said.”You’ll find lots of adventure during your time here at Elon.”
Dean of Global Education Nick Gozik likewise expressed gratitude and excitement in his welcome and shared that he, too, had to adjust to the United States. Gozik was born to U.S. parents in Australia and lived there until he was four when he moved to the United States. “I remember being a little bit different,” said Gozik. “I had an Australian accent. I remember saying ‘weird’ words – ‘weird’ to us. Instead of ‘green pepper’ I would say ‘capsicum.’”
“International” at Elon can mean several things, from a student who has never previously left their home country, to a U.S. citizen who has lived primarily outside of the United States, to a student who is not a U.S. citizen but has spent most of their life in the United States. Often, if an international student at Elon is asked, “Where are you from?” it isn’t a one-word answer. It’s a story layered with locations and cultures.
“We have a lot of different storylines represented in this room,” said Gozik. But, what brings us all together is this global dimension, the fact that we all have some kind of connection to another culture.”
A part of Elon culture is the ceremony and symbolism of “Oak,” representing growth, strength and legacy. “Elon is Hebrew for ‘Oak,’” Book said. “All of the Oak trees you see inspired the founders to name the university ‘Elon.’”
Gozik shared how this earliest legacy of Elon is carried forward by international students today:
“In two days, we’re going to have New Student Convocation. As we’re talking about the history of Elon, the meaning of ‘Elon’ as ‘oak,’ and you see all these oak trees around, you’re going to be presented with an acorn, a seed. When you graduate – I hope I’m not giving anything away – you will get an oak sapling, a small tree. The hope is that you as students take that sapling and go back to home, wherever that may be, and plant it. What’s exciting about this is you get to see that tree grow, as a symbol of your growth here at Elon and as you continue out into the world. For international students, it isn’t always possible to take that sapling with you. So, we also have a tree-planting ceremony. If you go to South Campus, you’ll see we have a grove of oak saplings planted by international graduates, which we call the “International Grove.” The idea is that we have a presence that stays on this campus where international students can physically see that growth.”
For Sonith, a new student arriving from Cambodia, that legacy is personal. Sonith is the seventh Jay Pritzker Academy graduate to study at Elon, earning a full scholarship and admission to the competitive Odyssey Scholars program through a special partnership with the academy near Siem Reap. Sonith learned of Elon through other alumni of her high school, including Thida Kim ’21, Kimheng Larch ‘22 and Sreyrath Poeun ’23 – students who leave a legacy by creating a path for Cambodian students to come.
This path to Elon for international students is daunting – it takes courage and dedication to arrive to campus, which many might assume is the starting line. For Anna Kozlova, an athlete on the Track and Field team studying at Elon from the Czech Republic, the transition can be frightening, but is well worth the journey.
“Well, I was scared at first,” Kozlova said, “but I am speechless. I am so happy here so far. Everyone is so friendly, and I feel like I made the right decision to go here.”