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International Grad Students Help New Arrivals through iGrad Transition Program

Last summer, when Shreya Katuri was about to start her master’s program in Integrated Marketing Communication, she was contacted by a current student, Ivana, who helped her with finding housing in Boston, and navigating her new city and program.

Katuri, a native of New Delhi, India, said that without help from Ivana, also an international graduate student, she would have been “a little directionless.” But through Emerson’s iGrad Transition Program, she was able to find temporary housing near Emerson from India, and was able to learn more about her adopted home.

“They were so helpful; I knew I wanted to be part of the team,” said Katuri, who is an iGrad leader herself this summer and has already begun reaching out to her list of international students.

The iGrad Transition Program was started four years ago by Cathy Edelstein, senior scholar-in-residence in the Communication Studies Department, and is run out of the Office of Graduate Studies.

“I just saw so many of these students coming who had the same story of isolation, and I thought, Emerson can do better than that,” Edelstein said.

Of Emerson’s 671 graduate students in 2015–2016, 145, or about 22 percent, are from outside the United States.

Moving to a new city where you don’t know anyone can be a lonely experience, even for an American, Edelstein said. But international students have additional hurdles and problems to solve that can become overwhelming without the right support.

Unlike international undergraduates, who are provided housing on campus, grad students must find their own places to live, and they have to do it from thousands of miles and multiple time zones away. And because students are allowed to enter the country up to 30 days before their programs begin, oftentimes they also need to find temporary places to stay until their lease starts or until they find permanent housing, Edelstein said.

Emerson’s Office of Off-Campus Student Services provides guides for all students, but having a fellow student who’s been through the process before, is more personalized, she said.

Katuri said like most international students, she had never even visited Emerson before coming to study, so the iGrad Transition Program was a useful way to “get a feel for the city and the college” before she got here.

“That just makes it more relatable,” she said of the experience.

And it was her iGrad leader, Ivana, who suggested she try using Airbnb to find a place to stay for the 10 days between landing in Boston and moving into her Allston apartment, something she said she wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

iGrad leaders also provide information about what immunizations new students will need, how to get around Boston using public transportation, and what there is to do for fun, Edelstein said.

The majority of Emerson’s international graduate students come from three countries—China, Taiwan, and India—and the five iGrad leaders selected this year reflect that. Edelstein said when assigning the 90 or so incoming students to leaders, she tried to take into account nation of origin, as well as program of study. But international students face similar challenges regardless of where they’re from, and all accepted students speak English (communications from leaders to new students are always in English, she said), so it isn’t crucial that a student be matched with a leader from home.

Though it can be comforting.

April Wu, a second-year graduate student in Integrated Marketing Communication, is originally from Taiwan, lived in Thailand for a time, and then returned to Taiwan for her undergraduate degree. Her iGrad leader, Lisa Yu, is from Taiwan as well.

“It’s nice to know there are people to reach out to, especially because [Yu] was also Taiwanese, so the communication went very smoothly,” Wu, herself an iGrad leader this year, said. “Even now, if I have questions, I still go to her for advice.”

Wu said before she left home, she was able to connect with fellow students from Taiwan on Facebook and find roommates; then, when everyone got to campus, they teamed up together to find housing.

This summer, Katuri, Wu, and three of their fellow iGrad leaders visited nine different administrative offices around campus to learn what services each department offered, how they could help international students in particular, and what questions the departments frequently receive.

Over the past two weeks, they’ve sent out emails about critical, deadline-oriented information: housing, health care, and the MBTA. They also communicate with their students on social media platforms: LinkedIn, Facebook, and for students in China without access to Facebook, WeChat. Once the students get to Boston, they’ll organize events to help them acclimate and meet people before classes start.

“They’ll give tours and get a group of other students to come in and do fun activities so they actually have a group of friends to do things with,” Edelstein said.

And the iGrad Transition Program doesn’t just benefit new students, Edelstein said. Because international students are here on visas that don’t allow them to work off campus, being an iGrad leader, which is paid, is a way for students to make money.

Even having been a new international student herself not so long ago, Wu said she appreciated the in-depth training.

“I just think this is a very good idea, because when I first came…[and] after all the training, I realized there are a lot of things other graduate students might not know,” she said.

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