Spring 2010 Issue

Not in Kansas anymore

Barry’s International Assistant program helps students adapt to life far away from home

By Whitney Sessa

Pictured counterclockwise from the top are Natajia Miller, Davina “Davie” Johnson and Georgia Mathew.

When Natajia Miller began her freshman year at Barry, she felt lost, misunderstood and out of place. Miller, an international student from Staniel Cay, Exumas, in the Bahamas, was beginning her college career outside of her home country and a plane ride away from her loved ones. Faced with new customs, culture and people, she had more to worry about than just finding her way around campus.

“When I first got here, I was a lost young, soul,” said Miller, who soon realized that the transition was going to be more difficult than she expected. Registering for classes, navigating the campus, and meeting new friends seemed nearly impossible to someone new to the university, to South Florida – and to the country.

However, before the week was up, Miller received a phone call from Barry’s International and Multicultural Programs and her luck quickly began to change. She had been assigned an international assistant (IA), Maria Sanchez. Serving as a mentor, Sanchez would help Miller to become oriented with the campus, its students, staff, academic programs, clubs and organizations, and other resources that would prove vital to a successful collegiate career.

“Maria was my first friend, so I never felt alone at Barry,” said Miller, a double major in international business and computer information sciences. “Because she was Caribbean also, I didn’t feel like an outcast. There are a lot of things I wouldn’t have known had it not been for her.”

Miller’s positive experience with the program motivated her to become an IA her sophomore year. Now a junior at Barry, she is one of four IAs who serve approximately 300 full-time undergraduate international students on campus. Each year, Barry’s IAs are assigned anywhere from 15 to 25 international students each. The program, which has been running for more than 15 years, requires them to take on a wide span of responsibilities. IAs act as both academic and social resources, serving as campus guides, event planners, tutors, advisors, liaisons, and most importantly, friends. Their responsibilities aren’t just limited to campus, however, as IAs also spend time volunteering with a charity of the group’s choice. Each academic year they do research as a group and decide which local nonprofit would benefit the most from their efforts.

Davina “Davie” Johnson, an international student from Freeport, Bahamas, got involved with Barry’s IA program so that she could “step outside” her culture. “I just wanted to make friends all around the world,” said Johnson, a sophomore majoring in graphic design. “I just want [to get to know something about different] cultures so that I can be more diverse and hold conversations with people from all over the world and know what they’re talking about.”

A self-described introvert, Johnson says she values the one-on-one time she spends with her mentees, whether it be talking on the phone, going out to lunch or even hanging out on the weekends. This year Johnson’s international mentees come from the United Kingdom, Jamaica, the Bahamas, China, Canada and Bermuda.

Georgia Mathew, a junior majoring in social work, decided to volunteer as an IA this fall so that she could “spread her wings socially.” Although she’s not an international student, she faced similar problems adjusting to life at Barry when she transferred from Clark Atlanta University in the spring of 2009. As a transfer student and a commuter, she had trouble finding her roots at Barry.

“You go to class and you go home, so as a commuter, you tend to feel a bit isolated from the [campus] community,” said Mathew, originally from the Caribbean island of Anguilla.

Volunteering as an IA has allowed her to feel more connected to Barry and its campus, says Mathew, who mentors students from Saudia Arabia, Czech Republic, Norway, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations. Each month, she and the other IAs design and host programs that are tailored to their respective students’ needs, such as open discussion nights, immigration seminars and diversity events.

IAs also encourage their students to utilize other university resources by introducing them to various campus departments and programs, such as the Learning Center, Campus Ministry and the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services.

Another important aspect of serving as an IA is community volunteer work. In 2009, Barry’s IAs devoted their time and fundraising efforts to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of South Florida (RMHC), a nonprofit organization that provides a “home away from home” for families who travel outside their communities to seek medical treatment for a child. Aside from fundraising for the organization, IAs volunteered once a month with the RMHC, hosting activity nights and cooking or catering meals.

The IAs’ vast and varied duties are not tied to college credit, work study, or extra credit, but are usually taken on altruistically, often as part of a desire to give back to the program that once helped them, said Damaris Vasquez, director of International and Multicultural Programs.

“I’m proud of how much they care,” Vasquez said. “They’ve all been in the same shoes, and they haven’t forgotten that. They are very vested in what they do.”