Growing up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Ky Nguyen was shy and seldom ventured outside of her social circle. Giving a speech in English in front of a class in the United States would have been a daunting prospect.
Then she enrolled in the Global First Year program (G1Y) at FIU. The program helps international students adapt to college life in the United States both culturally and academically.
The program was created through a partnership between FIU and Shorelight Education, an international company that recruits college students for study abroad and matches them with schools that best fit their aspirations. Students and their families pay for the additional guidance that will help them get the most from their American college experience.
International students tend to be attracted to FIU for its highly ranked programs in international business, hospitality and tourism management and engineering programs. And its location in Miami helps too. Barry Vogel, a managing director with Shorelight, said that South Florida is appealing because it is “the gateway to a lot of the world.”
FIU’s program started in Fall 2015 and to date has welcomed more than 150 international students representing 30 countries. One hundred-forty more students are expected to join the growing program this fall.
Like any other FIU freshman, G1Y students take courses that fulfill core requirements. They also enroll in supplementary courses that teach them to write research papers and argumentative essays at a college level, as well as develop their English language skills. Students who need more help can enroll in the English Language Institute.
The extra coursework also helps them engage with the other students in the classroom and, equally important, with the professor, something that can be difficult for students from countries where discourse or debate with a teacher is uncommon.
Jay Vanparia, a sophomore hospitality management student from India, said it took him some time to get used to classes at FIU as schools in India focus mainly on memorization and information recall. But he appreciates the learning support and on-campus resources available at FIU, a facet of university life not emphasized back in India.
“We don’t really get a lot of resources. And it is really hard to get involved on campus [in India] because, since there are a lot of people, there is a lot of competition, and there is a limited amount of opportunities for everyone,” Vanparia said.
G1Y staff helped Vanparia find ways to participate on campus. He writes for FIU Student Media, and he will serve as an orientation leader for the next cohort of G1Y students and as a peer mentor in an upcoming First-Year Experience course.
Outside the classroom G1Y students are part of a living-and-learning community. As a group, they tour local attractions such as the Wynwood art district and go to Miami Heat and other sporting events to experience South Florida culture. They take part in FIU events like football tailgates to get to know the American college-student lifestyle. They even take guided trips to Target and the mall at the beginning of the semester to see how shopping works here.
“Students who are under the G1Y are spoiled. [Staff] help you with anything,” said Moayad Alhazmi, a sophomore mechanical engineering major from Saudi Arabia. “They help you from the moment you arrive to the airport until you graduate from the program.”
Stephen Fain, a professor emeritus who today manages the partnership with Shorelight, said it’s important to help international students break out of their shell in this way because when they move here, they don’t often find the cultural and social experiences to which they’re accustomed, and it can make transitioning to life at FIU hard.
“All of this is different, and so when they come here, if we left them to their own devices, most of them would simply cluster around the people within the group that are the closest to them and not experience the whole university,” Fain said. “So we try to get them to experience the whole university, which means you’ve got to get out.”
Idarabasi Akpan, a sophomore biology major from Nigeria, got more than she bargained for out of the program. Though she had expected the program would help her make friends in a foreign place, she hadn’t expected her classmates and even the program staff would end up being her family away from home.
“I was in a really bad accident this year. I couldn’t walk or do anything, but they were there for me,” Akpan said. “They drove me to the hospital. They brought me soup. They packed my stuff. Everything I needed, they were there for.”
Nguyen, the sophomore international business major who was once too nervous to speak in front of a class, feels the program was an invaluable experience that encouraged her to get out of her comfort zone. It helped her build the English skills and confidence to stand up in front her peers at her cohort’s progression ceremony to talk about her experience as a G1Y student.
“Before I was a really shy girl. But through the program, I met so many people from so many cultures. I learned how to embrace myself and also how to speak out and reach out to people more.”
She became a global citizen. ♦