On a plaque on the side of FIU’s first building, Primera Casa, the university lists its aspirational goals: education of students, service to the community and greater international understanding. As global travel was restricted due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the approach to achieve international understanding had to be reimagined.
The task was monumental but FIU's Office of Global Mobility and each of the members of the team had established a strong foundation and were ultimately resilient, creative and determined to assist their students with all their needs during this time of uncertainty.
Established in early 2020, the FIU Office of Global Mobility formally brings together the Office of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) and the Office of Education Abroad (OEA) to better serve inbound and outbound students.
The ISSS office currently supports 4,200 international students, representing 143 countries; about 3,500 are studying at FIU. The balance are participating in their Optional Practical Training (OPT) working at different companies in the community and in other states. In addition, the OEA has seen a 23 percent increase since joining IIE’s Generation Study Abroad initiative in 2017, and it has been actively facilitating and supporting international travel for about 1,000 students a year.
When remote working and learning was instituted in the spring 2020, the office of Global Mobility moved quickly to provide its services virtually.
“This semester hit us hard,” says Alejandra Parra, the executive director for Global Mobility. “Our international students didn’t know what to do. Many have stayed and we continue to serve them.”
In addition, the university cancelled 37 faculty-led study abroad trips, a measure that was taken with the utmost responsibility by the university leadership that left around 500 students unable to live their international experience. The OEA had to bring home 44 students who were in exchange and third party programs scattered around the world in Australia, South America and Europe.
But despite the pandemic, FIU was true to its mission and the office of Global Mobility worked to continue to embrace international students and offer true international experiences. In addition to having a virtual office open and accessible daily, international students can now set-up 30-minute virtual appointments to receive assistance with their immigration processes (staff serve as government officials with access to the U.S. immigration database). About 950 students have visited at an average of 15 students daily since FIU started to work remotely, and advisors have assisted more than 700 students in their virtual appointments.
Parra also continued with her monthly “Teatime with the Executive Director,” which was a hit for students looking for insight and a place to express themselves. Meeting students in a more informal setting has been very positive, Parra says.
“It’s been one of the most satisfying experiences because we see students really need to talk,” she adds.
Armana Sabiha Huq really needed the support. The engineering doctoral student from Bangladesh was getting ready to defend her dissertation when the pandemic hit. She says at one point she felt hopeless and sought help from FIU Global Mobility and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). The Panther family came through.
“The international office was my home,” Huq says. “Whenever I emailed, within one minute, I received a response.”
Huq successfully defended her dissertation virtually and graduated in the spring. To commemorate her and her fellow international students’ graduation, the office held a Virtual Farewell Celebration that was attended by 98 international student graduates and their families. Participants received a virtual certificate with their country stoles via e-mail for the celebration.
“It was excellent,” says Huq. “I was emotional, and I felt so bad that I was leaving FIU. I owe FIU a lot.”
FIU Global Mobility also has a robust calendar of events that help international students feel integrated and not alone as well as workshops and sessions that provide information on all the opportunities available to Panthers. These, too, were transferred online with great success.
The OEA did not want to leave students without the ability to enjoy international experiences, so virtual international internships were promoted for students looking for virtual opportunities abroad to enhance their resume and live the world from a different lense, and many students jumped at the opportunity.
Iris Cristino-Yanez, 20, is a fully online student who lives in Naples. The international business and human resources double major was hoping to gain international experience in China this summer but realized as she read more coronavirus headlines that that was not going to happen.
“I was really upset about it because I wasn’t sure if I would have another opportunity,” Cristino-Yanez says.
Then an email from the Office of Education Abroad invited her to a virtual workshop to learn about virtual international internships. With the help of staff, she landed a summer internship with a Spanish company, which she starts mid-June. Meetings will be virtual, and she will receive individualized mentoring.
Finance and international business major Paula Morales was signed-up for a faculty-led trip for the summer of 2020. But with some quick action, she landed a virtual internship with ASPECT Studios, a landscape architectural firm in Australia. With the help of a CIBER stipend facilitated by the College of Business, she will work with fellow interns around the world on assigned projects. The freshman will also receive assignments on LinkedIn, where she can earn badges to list on her resume.
“It’s a great opportunity. I think a lot of jobs will be online in the future and this allows me to learn those necessary skills now,” Morales says.
She adds: “It will give me a cultural experience. It’s a global economy.”
Today, Parra says FIU Global Mobility is providing 100 percent of their services, and they are able to assist their students with all their needs, with adaptation to the processes which have proven to be productive and efficient.
“There are many processes we created that we are going to keep. There are many virtual services that we are going to continue to offer when we go back to campus,” she adds. “We have found students respond well to both modes.”
“I am proud to say we are providing quality services, and that we continue to uphold the university’s values and our mission day after day,” Parra concludes.