International Students Bond Over Unusual Term At the start of the academic year, 17 first-year international students began their W&L experience in Scotland. Today, they are taking courses in Lexington as a unique group of friends.
In early July 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened around the world, international students were unsure whether they would be allowed to travel to the United States. Among those affected were W&L’s incoming international students, including 17 first years looking forward to starting classes at W&L for the first time.
“Over the summer, we discussed whether the first-year international students would be able to get to W&L on time to start classes since we had advanced the start of Fall Term to August,” said Mark Rush, director of the Center for International Education and Stanley D. and Nikki Waxberg Professor of Politics and Law. “That dilemma, coupled with numerous travel restrictions and backlogs at U.S. consulates around the world, made it essentially impossible for most of the incoming international students to arrive in time to quarantine, go through orientation and start classes.”
The university decided that W&L international students should have the option to start their first semester at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. W&L has partnered with St. Andrews since 2001 to provide Study Abroad experiences for students.
There were 147 students from 45 countries enrolled for classes at W&L this fall. All upper-level international students were also offered the chance to start at St. Andrews. However, nearly all of them stayed on the W&L campus after classes went online in March and remained in Lexington through the summer. First-year students had multiple hoops to jump through before they made it to Lexington.
“The U.K. travel restrictions were not as onerous as those in the U.S., and their consular services were not as backlogged,” said Rush. “We contacted our colleagues at St. Andrews with whom we have a longstanding, close relationship. They offered to host the entire group of international first years, which was wonderful news. We did not want an entire class of international first years to be confronted with the option of seeking to defer their arrival or dialing in to remote classes from up to 12 hours away.”
Diwesh Kumar ’24, a Johnson Scholar from Pakistan, was one of the “W&L 17” who did start in Scotland.
“The semester at St. Andrews was challenging, but also a lot of fun in many ways,” he said. “Being away from W&L for my first term gave me fear of missing out despite being as active in college activities as I could virtually, so having classmates who went to the same school really allowed me to bond with all of them and go through the entire semester together.”
While at St. Andrews, the 17 members of the Class of 2024 tried to make the best of an odd situation.
“I am personally very grateful for my time at St. Andrews because even though it was a virtual term there, I had a residential experience, I was in the same time zone for my classes and I also got to safely tour around the United Kingdom a bit,” said Kumar.
After the international first years arrived in the U.S. in early January, they quarantined in a hotel in Chantilly, Virginia, before coming to campus. Their bonding continued during quarantine.
“At the hotel, the group got together for movie nights and enjoyed some other fun activities as a unit,” said Kumar.
Now, those students are all in Lexington, and they are in the midst of a genuinely unique first-year experience. They took part in a week’s worth of virtual orientation activities that they typically would have experienced during the summer with the rest of their entering class.
“First-Year Experience worked closely with International Education and the First-Year Orientation Committee to provide first-year international students with a winter orientation that safely welcomed them to campus and connected them with resources and peers,” said Jason Rodocker, associate dean of students and dean for First-Year Experience. “The newly created winter orientation was primarily virtual information with some COVID-safe activities coordinated by International Education.”
Orientation activities included a virtual welcome banquet, Zoom meetings with campus leaders and a scavenger hunt at the end of the week.
“In the end, we all became very good friends and a tight-knit support group for each other,” said Kumar. “That support has continued since we have arrived on campus. We are all friends and have been doing a lot of activities together through the orientation programming.”
Despite the unusual start, W&L’s first-year students are now ready to take on the challenge of college life.
“Amidst the uproar caused by partisan politics and the pandemic, this is just a wonderful success story,” said Rush. “The Center for International Education, Student Affairs and Admissions Office worked together to plow through the potential obstacles presented by these unique and uncertain times and organized a tremendous program and experience for this group of students. This has been an effort of which we can be proud and an outcome for which we are thankful.”