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Posted at 03:05 PM ET, 09/07/2011

Colleges increase, refocus orientation for international students


I took a long bus ride from Dulles International Airport to the University of Virginia last month with two dozen incoming international students who peppered an upperclassman onboard with questions about cellphone plans, summer storage options and Charlottesville weather patterns. (Here’s my story.)

Starting college can be a scary transition. Doing so in a foreign country can be even more so.

Each year more and more international students enroll at U.S. colleges, a trend is largely driven by affluent Asian families who value Western education and can afford to pay full price.

Some universities have found that traditional orientations and new student programs aren’t the right fit for foreign students, who often have different questions, concerns and needs than freshmen who grew up nearby. Most schools now have a plethora of international orientation programs and offices dedicated to helping with visa issues, immunizations, getting a driver’s license, setting up banking accounts, arranging travel, understanding American culture and anything else that might pop up. (For example, Macalester College in Minnesota offers an orientation session called “Sarcasm 101: An Introduction to Humor in America.”)

Support is often needed before classes begin. That’s why U-Va. runs a shuttle bus from the airport, and Virginia Tech arranges housing for students who arrive before the dorms open.

James Madison University offers a 30-week transition program that helps students build their English proficiency and learn about campus life before joining traditional classes. Although foreign students made up less than 2 percent of the student population last year, it’s a fast-growing group. Between 2006 and 2010, JMU saw its number of international students grow by nearly 75 percent.

During check-in at the College of William and Mary, the Reves Center for International Studies stayed open until 4 a.m. This year the school decided to extend orientation programs for new international students into the school year. In the past five years, William and Mary has seen its number of foreign students double, and this year welcomed a record number of 468 students from 51 countries.

An introduction to the U.S. doesn’t just happen on campus. William and Mary has also planned day-trips to Washington and the Blue Ridge Mountains to introduce foreign students to other parts of the country. American University does the same thing, with road trips planned to the Great Frederick Fair and Amish Country. Washington and Lee University pairs new international students with local families who often stay in touch for years.

This is just a brief overview of the support programs out there for international students. Is your campus doing something different? What is most helpful? Tell me about it in the comments.

By  |  03:05 PM ET, 09/07/2011

 
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