Category Archives: International Student and Scholar Features

A Global Game

USD Women’s Tennis Program – A Melting Pot of International Talent

From USD Magazine – It’s hard not to notice how much fun Shani Blecher and Colomba DiFilippo are having on a sun-splashed afternoon at USD’s Skip and Cindy Hogan Tennis Center. The uniform row of hardcourts adjacent to their position in the stands reverberates with the
metronomic beat of ball meeting racquet as their women’s tennis teammates hone their skills during an off-season practice session, but the two friends are busy talking story, and that’s clearly much more interesting than watching forehand volley drills.

The conversation is so very co-ed; classes, pending exams, trips to the beach and a planned outing downtown to sample a new restaurant are brought up in no particular order, and the constant giggling and ease with which they move from one talking point to the next suggests they’ve been pals since preschool. The fact that their respective hometowns of Shoham, Israel and Santiago, Chile are nearly 8,000 miles apart throws a giant monkey wrench in that theory, however — much to the delight of USD Women’s Tennis Head Coach Sherri Stephens.

“We really try to create a family environment with this team, especially when considering that a lot of our players are far, far away from home,” she says. “I think it’s critically important to make that transition as smooth as possible.”

With more than three decades of experience helming the Torero tennis program, Stephens has earned her share of frequent
flier miles searching the globe for talents like Blecher and DiFilippo. Along the way, she’s learned that coaching internationally born-and-raised players successfully requires a delicate balance of discipline and empathy.

“Most of them are experiencing major culture shock when they arrive, and it’s really important that they understand and embrace our team concept. But you also need to be aware that these are young women who more than likely have never been this far away from home, and occasionally just need a shoulder to cry on.”

Stephens relays a story about a player she recruited from Ireland who would write the number of days she had left before she could return home on her hand; rubbing off and updating the figure every 24 hours. “I was sure I was going to lose her when she went home for the holidays, but she came back and never looked back. She ended up becoming a leader on the team, and one of my best friends.”

The 2014-15 roster could easily be mistaken for a United Nations delegation, as five of the world’s seven continents are represented. That type of diversity is exactly what Stephens is looking for, on a variety of levels. “I love the idea that USD is a place where student athletes from all over the world can come and get an amazing education to complement their athletic experience. I think it’s what the university is all about.”

Pictured above from left to right are Head Coach Sherri Stephens, Mikayla Morkel-Brink, Marta Stojanovic, Colomba DiFilippo, Shani Blecher and Dana Oppinger.

By Mike Sauer

USD Soccer Part of International Students’ Acclimation!

From Inside USD —  Down 1-0 at halftime of its season-opening game against the University of Buffalo last Friday, the USD men’s soccer team was off to one side of the Torero Stadium field to discuss second-half strategy.

As that happened, ThomasInternationalSoccer-group Debray was one of five Torero fans picked for a contest. Contestants sprinted to midfield, collected a soccer ball and kicked the ball into the net for a goal. Debray, running as fast as he could, reached the ball first and completed the task to claim a free pizza as his prize.

After posing for a celebratory photo, Debray returned to his seat. Meanwhile, the USD soccer team returned to the field and proceeded to take care of business with four unanswered goals, including two in the first two minutes. While it was an impressive offensive display, one might concur that the sizzling halftime strike by Debray, an international exchange student from Strasbourg, France, was a sign of good things to come.

Debray sat with nearly 100 fellow USD international students and staff members from the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) who’d walked from Serra Hall to the stadium. A social event during USD’s international student orientation, both Debray’s effort and the Toreros’ second-half surge gave the latter’s newest fans plenty of reasons to smile, clap and cheer.

“I like that I’m not just coming to the U.S. on holiday, but I will be here for one year,” said Debray, a senior who is studying business marketing and wants to learn entrepreneurship from a U.S. perspective. Being at USD opens up other possibilities, too. “I want to discover all of San Diego. I want to travel, do a road trip to other parts of California, to Las Vegas and see the Grand Canyon.”

The University of San Diego, just beginning its 2014-15 academic year, is a growing popular destination institution for international students. The student population has grown immensely in the last few years. USD had more than 700 international undergraduates, graduate and law students in 2013, OISS Director Chia-Yen Lin said, and that number could rise this year.

The large group on Friday, despite members being from several different countries, was unified. They wore white t-shirts with “Torero Time” and a picture of mascot Diego Torero’s face. Individually, students were happy they’d chosen USD.

Russian Alexandra Leonidova is an incoming freshman from Togliatti, southeast of Moscow. Interested in becoming a doctor, she’s looking into USD’s pre-med program and plans to major in either biology or chemistry. She’s not new to the U.S., either, with visits to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York at age 15. Two years later, she was in Wisconsin on a scholarship for a Future Leaders Exchange program.

California was where she wanted to attend college. Via USD’s website, she learned about its dedication to international students and study and that USD’s Campus Recreation offers ballroom dance classes.

“It’s a dream come true,” she said. “When I saw USD on its website, I thought it would be the perfect place to be.”

International student-athletes on a USD sports roster is a common sight. Men’s soccer, for instance, has players from Germany, Norway, Canada and England.

Another USD sport with a strong international presence is tennis. Lisa Schlatter, a native of Tyrol, Austria, is a freshman who will vie for a spot on Coach Sherri Stephens’ women’s team this year. Schlatter checked out USD’s academic programs and has interest in studying business. But she’s equally focused on tennis, being among other international students and immersing herself in American culture.

“It is a beautiful campus, great weather and I’ve already been to the beach,” she said. “It’s been easy to find new friends. I look forward to playing tennis and being more independent.”

Schlatter, Leonidova and Debray and most new USD international students seem to enjoy what USD has to offer. Seeing how the international student orientation programming has gone so far, this makes junior mechanical engineering major, Khaled Alaskar of Kuwait, very happy.

“I want to share my experiences with the other international students and help them not make the same mistakes I did,” said Alaskar, who is part of the international student orientation team. “I want them to know I understand what they’re going through right now.”

Alaskar’s “mistakes” aren’t truly that; more so, he’s now doing for other international students what current OISS Associate Director Greg Grassi, a 1996 USD alumnus, did for him.

“Greg helped me come out of my shell,” he said. “I now have a lot of American friends as well as international friends. It’s been easy for me to blend the two together.”

Alaskar’s advice to other international students is for them to not be shy, to get involved on campus and take full advantage of campus resources such as meeting with professors during office hours, visiting and seeking help through the Center for Student Success and finding an organization or activity that connects them within the campus community.

“That’s why I joined the international orientation team,” Alaskar said. “I’d meet RA (Resident Assistants) and PA (Preceptorial Assistants) students and I’d always see how happy they were, happy about what they were doing. Being an orientation leader, I’ve found an opportunity and now I know what that happy feeling is like, too. I recommend that all students to get out of the bubble.”

Friday’s soccer game was a start. Noticeably, there were loud cheers from the group during pre-game player introductions, especially when a Torero international student-athlete’s name was called. It was a reminder that anywhere they go on campus, there’s always the potential to find a place that makes them feel right at home.

— Ryan T. Blystone

Students Display Creative Collaboration Research

From Inside USD – Want to get a true sense of what today’s students at the University of San Diego are studying? Want to see what moves them, what interests them, where their passion, emotion and curiosity take them? On Thursday, for two-plus hours, the 24th annual Creative Collaborations event, held in the Hahn University Center, was the place to be.

Inside the UC Forums, alcoves and the UC Exhibit Hall were more than 200 posters, artwork and projects with live elements and physical demonstrations of undergraduate student research showcasing many disciplines and work done with faculty advisement and encouragement.

“The name Creative Collaborations implies that the work done by students and faculty is a collaborative process, but here, students are treated as peers, their work is important and their contribution to the research is as impactful as our faculty,” said Sonia Zarate, director of USD’s Office of Undergraduate Research.

Students certainly took the lead on Thursday by giving presentations to a large and interested audience that included USD President Mary E. Lyons, Vice President of Student Affairs Carmen Vazquez, a cross-section of faculty, visiting local high school students, and USD students, some of whom were assigned to observe the posters and provide feedback on student presentations.

Said Alex DeVito, a student in Ethnic Studies Professor Michelle Jacob’s class, about what he took away from viewing Katherine Pfost’s Communication Studies project titled, Mental Illness in the Media: Where is the Silver Lining? “The limited portrayal of mental illness in film and media limits our understanding and acceptance of real illnesses and many people fear seeking help because of this.”

Another presentation proved to be a learning experience for both the student reviewer of freshman Shanna McKenzie’s “Working Wonders: An Analysis of the Tensions Between Catholicism and Indigenous Culture” poster and for McKenzie (pictured, at right). The latter is a Native American student, a member of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, whose home base is in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains town of Bishop.

“Before I started, I had no idea there was a Native American saint [Saint Kateri Tekakwitha was bestowed this honor in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI],” McKenzie said. “This showed me a whole different side of my culture and opened my eyes more about Catholicism.”

McKenzie examined tensions and points of convergence between traditional indigenous culture and Catholicism and explained that Kateri’s saint status is important because of the skepticism that remains due to her canonization.

“It was very interesting, especially at a Catholic university,” said Jesse Frost in her review of McKenzie’s poster. “It was interesting to look at the tensions that exist, but also the ways in which they connect.”

Meanwhile, one project with a strong engineering connection, between Advantageous Systems LLC and electrical engineering majors Sergio Palacios, Moath Alzahrani, David Polo (pictured, top left) and Samuel Wood from the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering, was on display in the UC alcove. The student group’s Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) temperature sensor has a visual cue that is set when a critical temperature is reached or surpassed. The RFID tag can be read with a field communication-compatible Android phone.

Psychology major Emily Knuutine (pictured, at left) took an interdisciplinary approach to her project. She did a survey with 302 participants for “Organic Food and Politics: How Political Affiliation Influences Perception of Environmental and Health Messaging Regarding Organic Food.” The project set to frame pesticides as being bad for human health versus bad for the environment to see if it would lead to significant changes in positive attitudes toward organic foods.

Her survey, which polled people between ages 18-72 and represented 44 of 50 states, drew two conclusions.

“Using education of any kind improved attitudes toward organic food; and political affiliation does not influence the presumption of the message,” Knuutine said.

There were numerous thought-provoking research projects displayed, too, including a sociology topic by Denise Ambriz(pictured, at right) called “Rethinking American: the Double Consciousness of Undocumented Students”; Nicholas Dilonardo’s English topic: “On Social Media, Subjectivity and Kanye West”; and a large group of sophomore engineering students who worked together on the project: “It’s Critical: Student Attitudes Toward Critical Thinking and an Assessment of a Lecture to an introductory Engineering Class.”

The latter project seemed particularly fitting Thursday. Understanding and being able to convey critical thinking is an essential skill for students who participate in Creative Collaborations. Undergraduate research is a hallmark of a USD undergraduate education and Thursday’s event showed once again that research can happen in any field of study.

For Zarate, who started in her leadership role at USD in January, she was pleased to see the students’ excitement. She was quite impressed with the proactive support campus-wide and appreciative of donors whose funding makes the research and the event possible.

“It was so beautiful to see,” she said. “You know that saying that it takes a village to raise a child? This is our village. This is our Creative Collaborations.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Ana Soloviov: SIBC Project Brings Students to South America

From Inside USDAna Soloviov, a sophomore Industrial and Systems Engineering major, spent her spring break in South America. A native of Chisinau, Moldova, Soloviov was one of five USD students educated about beverage products created and sold by Guayaki, a Fair Trade company. The trip was through the USD Student International Business Council (SIBC) and its Guayaki project.

I joined the SIBC as a freshman. What attracted me most was the organization’s mission to promote peace through commerce. There are multiple projects within this club, each one helping non-profit companies or having a socially positive impact on the world.

The positive energy of the Guayaki project leader, Cathy Kelly, led me to it. Our goal is raising awareness of the tea products made by the Guayaki Fair Trade Company. We set up a table each Wednesday and give away free samples of fresh-brewed Yerba Mate tea. Learning more about the properties of this magic drink, I realize how much energy it gives your body without the side effects of coffee. I couldn’t stop sharing this idea with friends and other students at farmers markets. At the end of my first semester, Cathy asked me to become a leader.

For the past three semesters, while sharing the leadership position with Cathy, her sister Denise and currently Beau Seguin, we’ve made great progress. Our team has grown and the Guayaki supply in the refrigerators at Tu Mercado quickly empty. The number of events where we represent Guayaki has increased exponentially. I’ve created a good base of resources, including annual reports, spreadsheets of positions, journal of minutes and photos.

The reward for our hard work was to travel with four other USD students — Beau Seguin, Katrina Warren, Kate Reid, Alexis Rinker to South America. We visited the plantations of Yerba Mate and the indigenous people helped by Guayaki. We successfully visited multiple plantations and tasted the local culture.

This trip would not have happened without Cathy and Denise, who are from Paraguay, guiding us during our stay. In 10 days, we visited four countries — Panama, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil — and drove more than 1,600 miles. Almost nothing went as planned, but unexpected is always best.

We took a four-hour taxi tour to the Panama Canal between flights, went to its museum, drove through the reconstruction of the old town and learned how much the country is developing.

In Paraguay we stayed at the Kelly’s family house and were introduced to a common tradition of drinking terere (cold Yerba Mate) served from aguampa (gourd, filled with loose leaf) by pouring iced water into it and sipping through a bobmilla (filtered straw). We drove to Encarnación, by the Argentina border, and got crushed mint and other leafs for ourterere. On the way to visit the ruins of the Trinidad(pictured, right), a World Heritage site where one of the first missionaries was built in the 17th century, we stopped on a side road to pick as many guavas from a tree as possible. It was delicious!

We crossed the Parana River to Argentina and stayed at the Kelly’s family ranch in El Timbo (Corrientes) for two nights. We experienced farm life by milking a cow, watching as our lunch lamb was killed, rode horses with Gauchos, swam in a muddy river bordering Brazil and explored fields of Yerba and Eucalyptus plantations. We visited local leather shops and toured plantations and factories from two Yerba Mate companies, including the world’s largest mate production plantation (Taragui has more than 10,000 hectares of mate and another 10,000 for other types of tea). We visited the Guayaki company office and plantation, which is smaller and less industrialized than big companies. It’s also organic and traditional as they handpick all leafs.

The biggest attraction was Iguazu Falls, considered the world’s most beautiful and the biggest by the number of falls (more than 270). El Garganta del Diablo is the throat of the falls where the vast majority of the water plunges. The accompanying rainbow was more than three-quarters of a circle, butterflies stayed on your fingers and crocodiles, toucans (pictured, left) and other birds made the falls in the rainforest seem like paradise. We also visited the local zoo, which gave us more insight into local biodiversity.

We wanted to cross the border back to Paraguay by ferry, but it was down for three days due to the Easter holiday. We settled on a 40-minute drive through Brazil. We passed through one point that borders three countries (Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil) and stopped at a gas station and discovered how tasty Brazilian coconut water is. That night we couldn’t find our destination and, instead, stopped in the middle of nowhere. But when I looked up, I was shocked by the amount and size of the stars. We could clearly see the white smoky area of the Milky Way! When we arrived at our destination, we toured the rainforest, walked on a hanging bridge over a river, ziplined and went canoeing.

My first trip to South America was an awesome experience. I learned a lot about local culture, especially how much it’s linked to Yerba Mate with Paraguayans drinking cold terere and Argentineans drinking hot mate, the equivalent to Americans drinking water. On the business side, I realized big investments involve big risk and require a long-term foundation, but that pursuing something you’re passionate about on a small scale gets you further and make you happier. I learned some Spanish and had a lot of fun with my friends. I’m grateful to USD for funding such organizations as SIBC, which supports such socially ethical companies as Guayaki and encourages students to take leadership roles.

After this trip I value each sip of my Yerba Mate even more because I know how much time and effort it takes to grow (10 years), store (one year), package and ship to the U.S. I saw the common struggles of Third World countries to fight corruption (Argentina) but I realized only hope and belief could rescue a country to regain its pride and will to change the future (Paraguay). I can now relate this to my country, Moldova, and to personal life in general.

— Ana Soloviov

Photos courtesy of Ana Soloviov