To Feel at Home

Vijay Patel '19


Most Thursdays around lunchtime, Aziz Albaijan can be found in the International Students Organization (ISO) lounge on the fourth floor of the Student Life pavilion. Albaijan, a 20-year-old junior from Saudi Arabia, looks forward to these weekly coffee hours where he mingles with friends and connects with kindred spirits.

“Every other person in this room comes from a different background or culture,” he observes, trying to be heard above the chatter of a crowded room. ”Just knowing that being different is what makes us the same, helps us all.”

The coffees — and sometimes lunch — are arranged by the ISO as part of a broader effort to help Albaijan and USD’s 900 other international students feel welcome and at home. That’s not always easy, especially in the current political atmosphere, where worries among Mexican students and those from middle eastern countries have pierced the typical college experience, and brought unanticipated stress into what should be a relatively carefree stage of life.

“We’ve seen a lot of times in the past year when there’s been a lot of concern coming from students,” says ISO president Lucero Chavez, a senior earning an honors degree in international relations. “But at the same time, we’re also seen more unity. People are more eager to come meet people who are just as diverse as they are, and find some comfort.”

Along with the weekly coffee hours, the ISO sponsors and plans other entertaining and informational events during the school year. Its annual Fashion Show and Expo — always a popular campus-wide extravaganza — drew a record crowd in March, with a joyous celebration of food, music, and traditional garb from some 30 countries.

USD’s administration and faculty made it clear early on that the university stands with its students and will do whatever it can to look after all of them, no matter what their background or status. But the school’s reach does not extend beyond the bounds of campus, and students like Albaijan are already reconsidering plans to go home over the summer, fearing that laws could change and they might not be able to return.

Vijay Patel '19“My own experience is that I’ve never encountered a problem, in terms of racism, especially here at USD,” he says. ”But especially when it comes to traveling or going back home, I’ve had to adjust my plans. Since I am safe here, I’m going to stay here until I finish my degree and then I can think about leaving.”

Since Fall 2016, issues like these have dominated the agenda at the International Center in Serra Hall, where staff at the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS)have partnered with ISO to stage informational events and panels featuring immigration lawyers and other experts and provided additional resources and support. They pride themselves on a personal and authentic approach, aimed at bolstering students who may feel anxious by dealing with each case that comes to them with care and kindness.

“The ‘home away from home’ is not a slogan,” says OISS director Chia-Yen Lin ’00 (MEd), who herself came to USD as an international student from Taiwan. “They feel it when we say we want to help them.”

“I can relate to the international students who come here because I myself had a rough time adjusting to USD,” says Vijay Patel (pictured), a sophomore majoring in business economics and finance. “It was a very different culture. It was my first time away from home for so long. People helped me. And now when I see someone struggling, I want to help them.”

It seems most every member of the USD community wants to help — from concerned faculty who contacted Lin as soon as the first travel ban came out, to domestic students on campus offering to find summer housing for those who feel they can’t leave the country. That’s the one bright spot in these challenging times, according to OISS assistant director Greg Grassi ‘99 (BA), who also advises ISO.

“This huge shock to the system got people thinking, ‘how are they reacting to this? What do they normally go through?’” he says. “I think they start to have a little more empathy. They realize that being an international student is a lot more complicated than maybe they thought.”

But a prolonged period of uncertainty may have more damaging consequences over the long term. Enrollment has been way down for some international programs at USD this summer, says Denise Dimon, PhD, associate provost for international affairs and director of the International Center. And just as concerning, it appears fewer domestic students are signing up for summer programs abroad. Exactly why isn’t yet clear, but Dimon speculates the drops might be connected to the current climate of fear and global instability. All of which, she worries, could ultimately could lead to a more insular and nearsighted campus community, instead of the empathetic and engaged citizens USD has always strived to cultivate and nurture.

“We have in general such a welcoming community. Our students are very open and kind,” Dimon said. “But if everybody’s reading from the same book and comes from the same background, we’re not going to have a very rich learning environment. It’s the different experiences that people bring, that really allow us to open our minds and to have empathy.” — Karen Gross

This is an expanded version of a story from the Summer 2017 issue of USD Magazine.

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