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Western international students get college experience online

Western’s International Student programs continue to connect students through Global Pathways and Conversation Partner programs

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Students learn to knead dough at a cooking class for international students in 2018. // Courtesy of Karissa Ringel

By Tayler Robertson

After the COVID-19 travel ban, international students were faced with a choice between leaving the country or staying and risking not seeing their family for a long time. 

Valerie Kimble, Western Washington University’s international student adviser, said students who come to campus are eager to meet others and interact with people from all walks of life. When international students are learning from their home countries, it becomes difficult to have any college connections.  

Matthew Browning, assistant professor of behavioral, social and health sciences at Clemson University, researched the psychological impacts of COVID-19 among university students

Students from seven universities were given an open-ended questionnaire asking what three things came to mind when they thought about how COVID-19 affected their mood. Browning found most students felt sad, irritable and scared. 

“What we found is that supporting opportunities for social interaction with peers is really important since there is such a critical part of the in-person college university experience,” Browning said.

An emphasis on creating accommodations to academic expectations that help students create a positive mindset is key, Browning said.

Due to the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, some international students decided to leave to be in close contact with their families — this decision also allowed students to save money while taking classes online. 

“In some regards for some students, it’s a little bit of a money saver because they aren’t paying for living here in the U.S.,” said Karissa Ringel, an adviser for the Language and Culture Programs at Western.

A large draw for many international students is the promise of a cultural experience where they’ll get to connect with classmates who speak English, Ringel said. 

As far as why some students decided to stay in Bellingham, “A lot of [international students] are transfer students who were in their community colleges and transferred to Western and have home rentals in the area so they are more established for their four years” Kimble said.

Kimble said Western has an anecdotal number of 115 international students, 87 of them are in the U.S. and 28 students are studying from outside of the U.S. Two to three students have chosen not to continue their studies online and will return next fall. 

Bianca Slamet, a first-year international student from Indonesia, said both she and her parents were unsure if she should leave due to the stressful threats of the travel bans.

“My whole experience has been great, but it has been hard for me too … I could go any time but I’m just scared I would have to put school on pause if there’s a travel ban and I can’t come back here, that’s been hard for me,” Slamet said.

During the pandemic, Western has created resources for international students to connect to campus life and their peers.

The Western Intensive English Program, which began last spring, is for students looking to become highly proficient in English. 

“Students taking this program are looking to learn English at a higher proficiency. Usually with an intention of entering the university,” Ringel said.

The Global Pathway program combines the Intensive English Program and Western classes. This program allows students to meet their classmates and create study groups that meet virtually. 

The Office of Outreach and Continuing Education has also created a program called Conversation Partners. International students are paired with Western students to learn and practice English from teachers and get acquainted with an Intensive English Program partner. Western students can apply to be a conversation partner and are matched based on gender to respect other countries’ cultures. 

The Asia University America Program is a program for international and U.S. students. Both international and domestic students can sign up to be peer advisors and mentors.

To connect virtually at Western, students within the International Students program have access to a private Discord server where they can participate in playing different games with other students. A recent popular game has been Among Us. 

Central Washington University also suspended operations on campus until further notice. 

Stacy Soderstrom, assistant director of International Studies Programs at CWU, explored how CWU has been able to gain more international students during COVID-19 within the article, “CWU Experiences Strong International Student Growth in Western Washington.” 

Central’s international program offers the virtual International Café and a virtual Share About Your Country night where students can further connect with other students from different countries. 

Through the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the closure of the school, Slamet still tries to find an outlet to connect with Western and its students despite having to do everything online. 

“I am pushing forward and thinking positively by trying to connect with other people through all of these resources, and online events have been really helpful too,” Slamet said.


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