International Assistants Program Helps Foreign Students Adjust to Life at BC

International Assistants Program Helps Foreign Students Adjust to Life at BC

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Adjusting to the rigors of Boston College's academic work and college life in general can be difficult enough. A foreign-language barrier or unfamiliarity with American culture can make the transition seem even more daunting.

But for 20 years, foreign students spending a semester or academic year at BC have been better able to enjoy their time at the Heights, thanks to the International Assistant Program.

Sponsored by the University's Intercultural Office, the program matches incoming undergraduate international students with juniors and seniors. These International Assistants help their foreign counterparts navigate the uncharted waters of BC and beyond, offering assistance in registering for class, helping purchase warm clothes for the New England winter or explaining the intricacies of the MBTA.

Besides serving as a guide for American culture and a pathfinder to the right resources, program organizers say the International Assistant can be a valuable friend.

Keri Charles '01 (second from left), a former participant in the International Assistants Program, stopped by on Commencement Day to say goodbye to students Mairead Treanor (left) and Olive Lyons of Ireland and Neil McEwan of Scotland. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

"A lot of people don't always know about all the challenges an international student is faced with," explained Assistant Dean for Student Development Adrienne Nussbaum, who oversees the program. "Even simple tasks like setting up a bank account can be very difficult."

Sixty students served as International Assistants during the 2000-01 academic year. Following Monday's Commencement Exercises, graduating foreign students and International Assistants gathered to reflect on the past years and say goodbye at a special reception in the Shea Room of Conte Forum.

"The experience helped me realize that people are so alike in so many ways when you get past the language barrier," said Keri Charles, '01, of Mahwah, NJ.

Charles began participating in the program as a sophomore and this year hosted two students, one from Bolivia and one from France.

"It was a very eye-opening experience," she said.

"American students take a different approach to education," said Diego Baeza, a marketing and management major from Ecuador who spent the last semester studying at BC. He credited several of the International Assistants with helping him when he first arrived at Chestnut Hill.

"The feeling is much more relaxed here and that took some getting used to. It was nice to have people who understood."

Not every international student is open to the idea of having such a partnership, Nussbaum says, but the option is available to each. The International Assistant Program involves an extensive application process that requires candidates to make a full-year commitment to keep in close contact with an international student.

"It's a big responsibility and we have to find people with the right personality and skills," said Nussbaum.

International Assistants undergo a three-day training session to help them learn what it is like to be an international student at BC, and to ascertain the information and other resources likely to be helpful to a foreign visitor.

"Being an International Assistant was definitely one of the best things I did at BC," Charles said. "The training was very helpful when it came time to meet with my students."

Organizers and participants point out that even English-speaking foreign students face a considerable adjustment to life on an American college campus.

"If the program hadn't been here this would have been a much more difficult transition," said Jonathan Edmonds, who came to BC from Australia last year.

Edmonds was paired with Jared Fields, '01, of Bountiful, Utah.

"At first he had a lot of questions about everything, even American girls," joked Fields. "But after a while we became pretty good friends."

Fields even wound up inviting his Australian counterpart on his Winnebago trip to watch the football team play at Notre Dame.

"That was a blast. It was a uniquely American experience that I'll never forget," said Edmonds.


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