Thinking Globally
International students and faculty widen campus horizons
by Barbara Davenport

Some come for a semester or a year, some stay for four years and a degree. Some teach, most study, and the whole campus learns.

Over 300 students and seven faculty from 64 countries joined the USD community last year; more arrive this fall. That growing body of international students reflects the university’s goal of becoming “a more culturally diverse and culturally competent community.”

Yvette Fontaine, Liv Olsen, Leini Santos and Maria Malloy are some of the people who make that diversity happen. The growing international presence is a win-win for everyone, says Fontaine, director of USD’s Office of International Students and Scholars. “It’s directly tied to the principles that make USD what it is. International students really like a small university that offers personalized attention and a core of religious values.”

Fontaine, whose office is part of the International Center, is the first contact for international students when they arrive. Her office oversees compliance with the complex web of rules for visas.

Olsen, from Norway, and Santos, from the Philippines, both seniors, are among USD’s 114 international undergraduates studying for degrees: Olsen in international business and Santos in communications. Malloy, assistant director of international admissions, logs 100,000 miles a year traversing the globe — to countries including Japan, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Bolivia and Argentina — to recruit next year’s students. She keeps in touch with candidates by e-mail and a Facebook page for those who’ve been admitted.

Prospective students tell Malloy what appeals to them about USD. “They really like the small student body and smaller class size; these are powerful draws,” she says. “Our commitment to Catholic values is very important, especially to students from Muslim countries. Our values of faith, ethical conduct and respect for other traditions reassures Muslim students and their parents that at USD they and their religion will be treated with respect.”

Once here, international students find a warm welcome in Fontaine’s office, and they talk with her throughout the year about much more than visas: the beauty of the campus delights them, and the personalized attention from faculty and staff amazes them, especially the commitment to help them fit in. They realize that in this place, people truly live the values of compassion and caring spelled out in USD’s mission statement.

The students’ first semester is the most difficult, and throughout the fall, Fontaine and her staff help the students decipher what baffles them, including American informalities like professors encouraging the use of first names (“call me Steve”), and their peers’ casual friendliness.

“Students from more traditional cultures don’t know how to respond at first to something like, ‘How’s it going?’” Fontaine says. “A lot of our students come from cultures where education isn’t at all flexible. They’ve never had the intellectual freedom they do here, and it’s hard to get used to. By the end of the year they love it. They go home as advocates for USD and for the United States.”

Liv Olsen came to USD from Oslo, Norway via Borrego Springs, where she was doing an internship in hotel management and loved Southern California’s climate, even the desert. She wanted a school with small classes and close contact with faculty. Olsen has been thrilled by her experience. “USD has such a breadth of courses, and so many ways to meet people,” she says. Olsen joined the student business council, got to know American families, and in 2007 she helped deliver food to fire victims.

Leini Santos, whose hometown is Manila in the Philippines, learned about USD from a magazine story about influential U.S. universities. Like many international students, she was surprised her professors did not require memorization of material, and instead expected much more analysis and interpretation. “I was worried all my freshman year,” she says, “but I learned to do it.”

International Center staff also help with living arrangements, transportation and child care, and they plan hikes, dances, dinners and trips aimed at helping international and domestic students get to know each other. “We want our students to be well integrated into the campus,” Fontaine says. “It’s those relationships that build a deeper understanding of another culture.”