When I first stepped on campus on Aug. 25, I felt a strange symbiosis of familiarity and unfamiliarity, having finished my first year of college completely online from my home in China. Locust Walk bustled with activity as first years headed off to yet another New Student Orientation event while I, a sophomore, found myself lost on my own college campus.
As a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions, many international students from the Class of 2024 were forced to stay home and finish their first year online even after Penn opened its campus in spring 2021. I myself was subjected to Presidential Proclamation 9984, which restricted travel from mainland China.
So while many local students who were on campus for the spring semester have had the opportunity to explore the area, we have not; while many have acquainted themselves with the greater Philadelphia community, we have not; while many have befriended each other in a face-to-face setting and found their friend groups, we have not. In other words, many sophomore international students — not only at Penn but all around the country — have the same needs as first years arriving on campus for the first time.
In light of this situation, colleges in the United States such as Amherst College, Swarthmore College, and Northwestern University offered international student orientations not only to first years but also to those who had not been on campus before. Aside from the usual campus tours and social events, these orientations included sessions about opening an American bank account, getting a phone number, working on and off campus legally, and coping with cultural shock. Furthermore, some of them provided free transportation to shopping centers so that international students could acquire items they may not have been able to bring from home. They were designed specifically to help international students who are arriving on campus for the first time and in need of familiarizing themselves with campus, the surrounding area, and American social culture.
Prior to arriving on campus, many international students reached out to students and faculty who, under normal circumstances, would be in charge of planning international student orientation for first years, and inquired about possibilities of hosting one for sophomores. Though, after much deliberation and coordination, an international student orientation did not take place for sophomores due to logistic difficulties and inability to accommodate an additional orientation within the established NSO schedule.
However, if the University had kept the international students’ needs in mind in advance, it would have had ample time to plan out a schedule and reserve physical spaces for the international student orientation to be held. Furthermore, it would have allowed more international students to plan ahead and arrive on campus early to participate.
The existence of an extensive New Student Orientation demonstrates Penn’s awareness of its responsibility to support new students as they settle into a new and perhaps intimidating environment. However, the University failed to take sophomore international students who had never been on campus before into consideration. Without a proper introduction to campus life in America, international students would likely be held back by their comfort zones and fall into homogenous groups, thereby minimizing the diverse experience that being a student at Penn can be.
Before the University moves on, let us not forget that 14% of the Class of 2024 are international students, many of whom were not able to travel to campus in spring 2021. That is 14% who did not know Penn Mobile would make residential life easier; 14% who had to figure out the where, when, and how of opening bank accounts as well as getting a U.S. phone number on their own; 14% who were and still are dealing with the complexity of going to school in a different country.
I do not wish to wallow in self-pity simply because I have managed to orient myself around campus without the help of the University. Those of us who were not on campus last year have proven ourselves capable of adapting to a new environment by supporting each other. However, if the University had held a proper orientation for us, maybe we would not have had to go the extra mile when familiarizing ourselves with the Penn experience. The University had the opportunity to support its international students, and it fumbled.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that many international students of the sophomore class reached out to Penn’s International Student and Scholar Services directly and inquired about an international student orientation. Instead, those students reached out to the students and faculty who are in charge of planning international student orientations. The DP regrets the error.
JESSE ZHANG is a College and Wharton sophomore studying Marketing and Communications from Shenzhen, China. He was the DP’s summer multimedia editor during 2021. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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