International orientation leaders transition international students to life at Lehigh

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Laura Dean ’11 is a graduate assistant in the Office of First Year Experience. Dean helps to coordinate the orientation leader program. (Micah Golomb-Leavitt/B&W Staff)

The school year starts early for incoming freshmen who live outside the United States.

International students arrive at Lehigh almost a week before any other first-years.

Upon their arrival, international students begin an orientation program organized by the Office of International Affairs led by an international orientation leader, or iOLs.

The iOLs are not much different than regular orientation leaders, other than their obligation to guide a group of students foreign to the United States’ culture. For four days, iOLs lead their groups through campus tours and various team building exercises designed to help the students become accustomed to the U.S. and Lehigh environments.

“They are facilitators and role models for the students,” said Laura Dean, graduate assistant for the Office of International Students and Scholars. “They provide mentorship for them during their time in orientation.”

OLs and iOLs are organized by different offices at Lehigh — OLs by the Office of First Year Experience and iOLs by the Office of International Students and Scholars. They train differently, operate at different times and cover different topics in their processes.

Dean said the main difference between the actual processes of first-year orientation and international first-year orientation is the iOLs cover topics such as immigration regulations the students must maintain, cultural norms at Lehigh and how to integrate into that atmosphere.

Sabina Cheng, ’19, said the iOLs are a good mix between international and domestic graduate and undergraduate students. Cheng was an iOL at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year for the first time and is considering reapplying because of her experience.

“Being an international orientation leader lets you meet people that you wouldn’t ordinarily meet,” Cheng said. “You get the chance to meet very different people from very different places.”

The main challenge of being an iOL is navigating past the language barrier. Even though international students are required to pass an English proficiency exam before coming to Lehigh, there are still common phrases Americans use that are completely foreign to them.

Dean said the best way to get around that barrier is to be mindful of the students and avoid ethnocentrism.

To be an iOL there is an extensive training process. There are seven sessions where leaders learn how to manage their group and facilitate discussions about transitions and possible culture shock. The iOLs return to campus from summer break a week earlier than other students for the international orientation.

Cheng said she had never met the other iOLs before the training period and the orientation process. Because she spent so much time with them, though, she became close with the other leaders and has still maintained those friendships today.

International students go through their orientation for four days, have a three to four day rest period and then meet with their Office of First Year Experience orientation groups for the remaining days before classes begin.

“You need to be more perceptive,” Cheng said. “You need to understand these people are from different cultures and a lot of them don’t have the best English. You have to be able to explain things differently and answer a wide array of questions.”

Kristen Mejia, ’17, is the captain of the undergraduate iOLs. Mejia is a domestic student — a student who lives in the U.S. — who originally applied to be a regular orientation leader but was not given the position and instead preferred to be an international orientation leader.

“(Being an iOL) takes a lot of energy,” Mejia said. “You have to be very open, hospitable and loving.”

To applicants for an iOL position, Cheng stressed the importance of open-mindedness and cultural awareness.

“The year before (this year) we had volunteers, but they weren’t really able to help the students in a mentorship capacity,” Dean said.

Dean said the application process ensured international students would be able to develop direct connections with those that were familiar with campus. The international orientation process makes the students a lot more comfortable with the new culture and gives them time to settle in before school kicks off so suddenly.

“I’m almost like a mother to them,” Mejia said. “I was just able to take care of them and share my experiences from Lehigh with them. That’s what I love about being an iOL.”

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