International students are one of the most underserved populations on campus. They face many particular challenges, from navigating the immigration regulations, to integrating into a sometimes foreign environment. These challenges seem daunting to face on one’s own, especially when they just started off in college. Knowledgeable people and resources can be hard to come by, leading to a feeling of isolation and frustration. This is what makes the Office of International Student and Scholars and its International Assistant “IA” Program so important.
The IA program is a mentorship program that aims to help incoming international students transition into their lives at BC. Transfer international students and first year international students are automatically assigned with an International Assistant during the summer before their arrival. Usually, each International Assistant gets assigned 5-6 students, and several International Assistants form teams called clusters. This provides the students a large group to socialize in as well as a wider array of resources.
In a typical year, IAs start contacting their mentees during the summer to say hello and answer any questions about move-in or classes. They meet for the first time at the International Student Orientation, which is the additional orientation that follows the general orientation for students. They would sit in a large room together, starting off with icebreakers, then attending talks and workshops throughout the day. Later in the evening, IAs and their mentees eat dinner together around large tables. People start making new friends, competing in trivia, or chatting about their new dorms and such.
The first few weeks are intensive. IAs engage their mentees daily through check-ins, group activities, and taking them out for dinners in Boston. From multiple accounts, one of the highlights of the week is the Boston boat cruise. Students pile onto a boat at Boston Harbor and spend their evening socializing, taking in the view of the Boston skyline. “It’s always a blast, and we get to know each other. Afterwards, they will know that they will have a good time at BC.” Steve Zhang CSOM ‘21 says, who has been an IA for three years.
As the semester goes on, IAs would usually do weekly dinners, combined with bigger events and small gatherings in IAs’ rooms or in Boston. Their main purpose is to be a resource that international students can go to for help.
This year with COVID restrictions, there has been an extra set of challenges for IAs. Angie Saggers CSOM ‘23 is a new IA this year, and all her mentees last semester stayed in their home countries. She talks about how difficult it is to stay connected sometimes. “During the summer, I tried to schedule calls with them to make it more personal. It was a lot harder, for them too. Imagine trying to know the culture and trying to immerse in this new place without being here,” Saggers says, “during the year, I checked in with them via email, chat, or Zoom calls to make sure everything is fine. They are bummed out because they don’t have the experience of being in person on campus.” It is heartbreaking to hear that first year BC students who were so excited to start a new chapter of their lives are currently feeling disconnected from the life of college. It is the part that makes going to college feel real.
For many international students in the past, the IA program has been an integral part of their freshman year at BC. Steve Zhang CSOM 21’ is an international student, and was in the IA program himself. He says, “As a freshman coming in, I didn’t know anyone. I was at the orientation room by myself because I knew no one. My IA texted me whether I wanted to get dinner together, and I immediately said yes.” He talked fondly about his memories of going to downtown Boston with his IA and learning how to use the T. “I didn’t really know about brands in America. I was trying to buy paper towels online, and I ended up buying toilet paper” Zhang joked. His IA showed him the ropes of how to navigate the world around him, from getting groceries, to finding things to do on campus.
Hollie Watts MCAS ‘21 has been highly involved in the IA program during her years at BC. As an international student, she recalls how much she loved her experience with her IA her freshman year. “I was always welcomed to go to her place. She checked in on me, helped me with classes, and gave general advice socially. It was a very good person to text about anything.” Watts, who is British, shared what it was like to be in an entirely new academic system when she came to BC, saying, “For American students, if they had problems, they could call their parents. There’s something that my parents didn’t get because they haven't been in this education system.” With an IA, her transition was much better. She got advice on how to pick classes and how to utilize the academic resources on campus. She loved the program so much that she became an IA for the next three years.
Angie Saggers talks about the reason that she applied to be an IA. “I’m originally from Jakarta, Indonesia and moved to Florida in middle school. I was thrown into a small suburban, Catholic school, and I felt like a fish out of water. I felt unwelcome. When I found out about the IA program, it was a great opportunity to be that person who I needed when I first moved here.”
The diversity in the IA program attracts many people to become IAs. Demetra Chang CSOM ‘22 has been an IA for two years. Her favorite moments have been getting to know her mentees and helping to advise them to get to where they want to be. She treasures the opportunity to talk to people from so many different countries. “We did pumpkin carving, Thanksgiving dinners [for the IA program]. You don’t expect that people are interested in experiencing these traditions.” Chang recalls. In the IA program, people come across a diverse range of perspectives and backgrounds. Sometimes, people are caught by surprise by the lessons they learn. For example, some American traditions are taken for granted in the US, but could be seen as new and exciting from the perspective of someone who is not American.
Hollie Watts says that the impact of the IA program has been immense. “I was frustrated with BC’s response to international students with COVID. I started a blog and Instagram about what we were going through. I ran for the international student seat within UGBC where I am now representing international students. I wanted to help them because of the relationships I’ve had.” The friendships that she has made within the IA program has also shaped her years at BC and later on. “I know that if I ever want to go to France, Switzerland, or Singapore, I have somewhere to stay. [What we have] are mentorship relationships in a way, but also a friendship,” Watts pointed out. Due to the large scope of perspectives that she experienced in college, she is now so confident in her ways that she could end up anywhere in the world and she would be alright.
The IA program is a cross section of many cultures, and it has been a crucial part of transition for new International students. “OISS was deciding whether they wanted to continue the IA program this school year. After much persuasion from students and IAs, OISS decided to continue the program. It is an important program, and we need people to keep the program running,” Zhang says. Without IAs who volunteer their time each year, the program would not exist. The Office of International Students and Scholars tries their best to offer their support towards their international students. Outside of OISS, there are not many special resources that BC can offer to international students. The IA program is crucial in keeping the first year and transfer international students feeling connected to their campus, especially during COVID times.
If you are interested in becoming an IA, please visit bc.edu/ia. The application deadline for becoming an IA for Fall 2021 - Spring 2022 is March 15th, 2021