For first year students, moving onto campus can be as disorienting and difficult as it is enthralling and exciting. While most first years undergo this transition in the Fall with a cohort of other students, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many international students have begun their on-campus experiences a semester later. Faced with bureaucratic nightmares, travel restrictions, and the litany of concerns that travel during a global pandemic entails, these students have found themselves in truly unprecedented circumstances. According to Assistant Dean and Director of International Student Programs Jennifer Marks-Gold, Swarthmore has never had a Spring start date before.
While students entering a semester after other first years have familiarized themselves with campus life, the college’s International Student Center and international student club i20 took on the task of creating an orientation for the fourteen international students arriving in Spring.
“When I was meeting with the orientation committee, they were like ‘Well, wait a minute, this is all Jennifer’s students’ and so then I just said … ‘Let me do the orientation program,’” Marks-Gold said.
Marks-Gold aimed to provide both a close approximation of a normal experience and support for students’ unique difficulties. The International Student Center worked to ensure that students who came to campus for the first time this Spring were provided with care packages filled with goodies, personal notes from Dean of Students Tomoko Sakomura, a workshop on Social Security registration, and a unique introduction to campus facilitated by the members of i20. This support mirrored that given by the International Student Center and i20 in the Fall.
Marks-Gold noted that students who came in the Fall were a major source of information for those arriving in the spring.
“We invited the students who went through the same thing [Fall semester] to participate in the Spring orientation … so that the [incoming students] could kind of get an idea of what [international students who arrived in the Fall] went through,” she said.
Two students who arrived later in March due to logistical constraints or personal preference received care packages and chocolates from i20 members as well, ensuring that they too could have a pleasant introduction to campus. The small size of the Spring cohort was key to the success of these personalized introductions.
Paris Shan ’23, operations manager for i20 and coordinator for the international student orientation, stressed the unique benefits of having such a small cohort of students to attend to.
“A benefit of this year’s spring orientation was how small it was. …. The level of support and care among the community really gave a warm welcome to the first-time on-campus international Swatties,” wrote Shan in an email to The Phoenix.
Beyond these initial steps, i20 and the International Student Center have continued to host weekly dinners for international students of all classes to connect with each other, forming a community for them to fall back on.
Shan commented on i20’s role in helping students establish support networks.
“I think despite the limitations of a virtual orientation, the events and student involvement effectively introduced students to the tight-knit i20 community and all the support available on campus,” she wrote.
Even these measures, however, often failed to address the scale of struggles students faced. For Mariam Muhammad ’24, isolation remained a major problem.
“When I came in … the people in my hall were already established, and it felt like I was the new kid rather than all of us being the new kids, so that made it a little difficult. It felt like there should have been more events to help us get to know people, because aside from the few things that i20 did in the beginning … there wasn’t that much that I could do to get to know people,” she said.
COVID-19 measures exacerbated these issues with isolation and loneliness. Shannon Friel ’24 found herself limited by dorm restrictions. Friel emphasized the difficulty of integrating into already established friend groups and found herself gravitating to the few students who didn’t seem to already be in them. Muhammad also emphasized how for her, arrival was a uniquely isolating, rather than inclusive, experience.
“I was so frustrated, like what am I supposed to do, where am I supposed to go, I don’t know about the G.E.T. app, I don’t know where to get meals, I don’t know anything, and you have just left me with my keys and my OneCard … It’s not like regular move-in day since our family members weren’t allowed in, but also there was just nobody there, there was nobody anywhere,” she said.
Fortunately, many of these difficulties have lessened for students as the semester has gone on.
Liya Chang ’24 commented that their experience has improved greatly over time.
“I would say that I had a very, very, very rough start but I’m feeling pretty integrated, feeling pretty grounded on campus now,” they said. “I think it depends on how much you are willing to put yourself out there, but that is also dependent on how comfortable you are with the campus, which you have to kind of get to know on your own versus last semester when all the freshmen were getting accustomed to the Swat campus as a group.”
Because international students come from more than 50 countries of origin, their ability to easily find community may vary based on whether other students from the same countries are present. Friel, who is from Argentina, noted that her less common nationality at Swarthmore has made finding community difficult for her.
“I don’t know if there are any Argentines on campus, but I do know that people have found their ways of networking with people within their own country to have a community, and sometimes [the lack of a culture-centered community] can feel very lonely.”
Beyond loneliness, Friel also expressed confusion about administrative issues.
“There was no information … and perhaps since there was not an in-person component, this made a lot of different things more difficult, especially for me,” she said. “I needed to get a job and I still have not been able to file my paperwork, so there’s these things where all of a sudden you feel a vacuum,” said Friel.
Both Marks-Gold and several Spring arrival students emphasized that solving these problems may simply be unfeasible given the sheer influence of the pandemic.
“A lot of other schools have been doing a lot of research on how COVID has affected [students], how being isolated has affected mental health and just, in general, it’s across the board. It’s not just the new students, it’s every student,” said Marks-Gold.
Chang also recognized the overall difficulty of being among the first cohort of Spring arrivals.
“I’m also not really sure how the school could have dealt with [Spring arrival international students] because the real problem is just that we were dropped into a fairly established social situation, and we had to kind of forge out ourselves and build those connections,” they noted.
Difficult circumstances, however, shouldn’t entail difficult responses according to Chang.
“I think if people could just treat people who weren’t on campus not as ‘people who weren’t on campus’ but just as people, full stop, end the sentence there, I think that would be great, because the distinction was something that I think everybody made. … It’s kind of a weird way to distinguish people and not one that was particularly productive in any for me in the first few weeks,” they said.
While understanding among Fall arrivals could improve circumstances for Spring arrivals somewhat, Chang qualified that the divide may be inevitable.
“In a lot of ways I think it’s kind of an unresolvable thing, and I feel like the class of 2024 [international students] will forever bear the scars of a semester remote and then a semester on campus.”
While the prospect of a permanent influence on the class of 2024 may seem worrisome, Marks-Gold sees reason for optimism.
“I wouldn’t say [the Spring orientation was] difficult but it was unique. Because these students are very strong students, … they have to keep trying [and] never give up, never give up; I’ve got [“Never Give Up” by Sia] in my head when I’m talking with them because they struggled so much to get here in the Fall, and then when that didn’t happen, they kept trying,” she said.