Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On August 17, one day before international student orientation began, Dean of Diversity and Community Development T. Shá Duncan Smith called seven international orientation leaders into a Kohlberg classroom. Soon, a rumor spread among international students: The college was thinking of canceling its international student orientation program.
“A lot of international students have been asking if it’s going to get canceled next year, because a lot of international students want to be orientation leaders next year,” Ferial Berjawi ‘19, who was at the meeting, said.
International orientation brings foreign citizens and Americans living abroad to campus a week before regular orientation. It walks students through the formalities of the student visa system, tries to soften any culture shock, and lets them adjust to time differences.
The rumor that the college might cancel the program appears to be founded on the pointed questions Duncan Smith asked during her meeting with international orientation leaders. According to Berjawi and Christine Lee ‘19, who also attended the meeting, Duncan Smith asked them to justify the time and resources spent on international orientation. Lee said Duncan Smith showed particular interest in the program’s cost.
“She just kept pushing back with the argument of ‘To keep you, it’s expensive.’ Like, that’s literally what she kept saying,” Lee said.
Some perceived her line of questioning as an attack on the program’s value.
“I feel like she doesn’t understand why it’s so important to us to have [international orientation],” Berjawi said.
The Daily Gazette asked Duncan Smith if the future of international orientation was in jeopardy. Duncan Smith, who came to Swarthmore last June, responded that international orientation was “extremely valuable,” but added that the college was reviewing the program’s content. Dean of Students Liz Braun, Duncan Smith’s immediate superior, said that international orientation will continue to exist.
Still, Braun wouldn’t commit to saying that there will be at least one or two days of international programming before general orientation begins. That leaves open the possibility that international orientation might become dramatically shorter.
In her conversation with international orientation leaders, Duncan Smith pointed to “higher-ups” to whom she would have to justify international orientation, Berjawi and Lee said. Duncan Smith didn’t confirm that she received any pressure from “higher-ups,” but Braun did say that “every office is being asked to take a close look at their budget.”
According to Braun, this happens every year, but the hints of change around international orientation are new. International student club co-president Justin Mintah ‘19 suggested that Duncan Smith’s recent arrival might have influenced the scrutinizing of international orientation. He said he hoped that, as she learns more about the school, she might reconsider making changes to the program.
Mintah and co-president Lisa Kato ‘19 said they welcome improvements to international orientation; for example, they said that the program could continue with fewer and better-trained orientation leaders. (The ratio of international orientation leaders to orientees is about 1:3. That ratio is comparable for general orientation if we count Diversity Peer Advisors and the like as general orientation leaders.)
There’s also the question of redundancy. In an email to The Daily Gazette, Duncan Smith wrote that some students have criticized international orientation for including events that general orientation repeats. This year’s international and regular orientations had few events in common, but both did include library orientations and meetings with Student Academic Mentors.
If you look at this year’s international orientation schedule, you will find that there are several hours each day allotted for socialization and other non-essential events. Kato and Mintah explained that this was on purpose. In fact, they want to extend future orientations, to give students more time to get over jet-lag and make friends. That now seems unlikely to happen.
“It would be better if we had more time. But there’s the threat of having even less time, which is the frustration, you see,” Mintah said.
The school will have to decide international orientation’s fate in the next two to three months. Departments are beginning to submit their budget proposals in November, to be reviewed in the winter. International orientation leaders are usually selected beginning in February. Mintah and Kato expressed cautious optimism.
“We’re confident that the [international] orientation that we see in the future will serve the best interests of students, and I think that it will remain as it is, in large part,” Mintah said. “If it changes a little bit, I think it will remain very good.”
Disclosure: The author of this article was an international orientation leader in fall 2014.
Featured image depicts 2016 international student orientation leaders and participants. Photo courtesy of swarthmore.edu