Albert Ji: Looking back on your first year at Hamilton, what achievements have you and International Student Services (ISS) made?
Dr. Omobonike (Bonike) Odegbami, Ed.D: Looking back, I will say that I'm proud of the fact that I've been able to advocate for international students, at different levels both on and off campus.
One of the first issues I tackled was the policy requiring international students to book Social Security appointments at predetermined times. These appointments were difficult to keep due to students having daytime classes at the same time, which they would then have to consider canceling. I successfully persuaded them to get rid of this policy, allowing students to set a time that worked with their schedules. That was my first win.
Another win for me was in the last spring semester, back when we still used dining services from Bon Appetit. I organized a dialogue between the dining company and international students to talk about their meals. Earlier, my Chinese students had expressed their concerns about a lack of cultural representation in the dining halls. During our meeting with Bon Appetit, we brainstormed ways to accommodate not just Chinese students, but Hamilton’s international community as a whole. We toyed with the possibility of bringing in an authentic food chef from outside the company, to cook traditional food (for instance, authentic Chinese food, not American Chinese food). We also considered having interested international students submit recipes, or guide kitchen staff. Although Bon Appetit did not win this year’s dining contract (resulting in a temporary obstacle towards implementing these measures), I feel good about the fact that we started that conversation, because it was one that we needed to have. We also met with Parkhurst Dining when they started this year. They were part of the Orient International Students Orientation. I had them come in to talk to the international students, to hear directly from them about their expectations, not only for food quality, but also for the availability of cultural foods. I expect that, as time goes on and Parkhurst settles into the community, they will address the needs we brought up during orientation.
Those were my top achievements for the last year. While I have not been here long, I feel like the communication lines between international students and myself really opened up. I am happy that we have had more international students visit the DMC (Days-Massolo Center), which is where I currently work.
AJ: What are your top priorities for this year?
OO: This year, my top priority is to be a vital partner, both to Hamilton and external entities, in order to advance international engagement and advocacy. I want to highlight the value of the international community, as well as advocate for their needs and concerns. I meet with international students through what I call ‘First Fridays’, so they know that I’m available and that there is a space where they can share their needs with me. My job (or priority) is to make sure that I partner with the campus and outsiders to ensure that those needs are met. I also want to collaborate with campus partners, to advance their engagement with international students and to leverage our relationship to meet their needs.
In addition, I want to enrich the student experience through the services we offer at the ISS (International Student Services), and to make sure that our programs and my fights enhance that experience. I do a lot of complaints advice. My priority is to ensure consistency, so that international students are informed about regulations. I also partner with the campus community to ensure that the international student experience is personalized. Our programs are not ‘one size fits all’- we need to look at each international student as a separate entity with unique needs, and to evaluate our campus programs to recognize this. Because student experience determines whether students decide to stay at Hamilton College, I also want to help with student retention. I want to make sure that we offer different types of programs to assist with the connection, inclusion and intercultural engagement of international students. It’s also important that I demonstrate a caring approach when I’m supporting students in crisis. For example, this semester, I had students from Russia and Ukraine. With everything going on in their countries, these students had high levels of anxiety. I ensure that these students are advised and provided with support, not merely through someone in my office but through mental health workers as well. Because conflicts are occurring in Israel and Palestine as well, I welcome students from those regions that want to utilize or add to the support systems we already have on campus.
I will also prioritize cross-training staff, so that people both inside and outside my office are knowledgeable about international students and their needs. This includes partners as well. I can do that by holding workshops or seminars with staff, so that they understand the types of students we have on campus, as well as the types of things they have.
AJ: How do you think the cultural differences between international and domestic students affect their lives at Hamilton? What do you see as your role in facilitating positive experiences across these cultural differences?
OO: Regardless of their reasons for coming to the US, I think many students face challenges adapting to a new culture, and that these challenges are by virtue of their being international. They have positive and negative experiences. Coming to a new country means grieving the loss of things like contact with friends and family, status in their home countries, food, climate and weather. Cultural differences can also cause a lot of stress. American culture may not match their expectations, and social norms might be different too.
In terms of academic suggestions, if a student is struggling in class, I encourage them to seek reading, tutoring or studying services. I want them to stay in touch with their teachers or teaching assistants, and to ask questions when information is not clear. And if they’re uncomfortable – which a lot of students are – they should just stop by during office hours.
For the social aspect, I think it’s important for international students to retain their own country’s cultural identity, while also becoming familiar with social customs in the US. This can help them in the process of adaptation. For example, here, we have things like Thanksgiving. We have things like Halloween, Labor Day, Memorial Day, things that are not common in other cultures. I encourage international students to search, to try and develop relationships with people who are from the US, so that they can adapt culturally while maintaining their individual identities. I encourage them to develop relationships with American students, who can answer questions they have about differences in customs, especially when these questions are confusing. When I organize events for international students, I ask them to bring an American friend along, not only because it helps the American student understand international cultures but also because it helps the international student develop relationships with their American peers.
On the mental health side, I know that coming to a new country to study and work is a big transition. I encourage students to find others whom they can count on to be supportive and understanding. Although students come here to study, it’s important for them to have free time. They should find time to do things which remind them of home, and which bring them enjoyment. The DMC is a place they can come to when they need help. If they’re feeling homesickness that doesn’t seem to be getting better, they should come to my office and let me know that they are having difficulties in terms of mental health and cultural adjustment, so that we could reach out to a counselor or advisor. I want to stress that it can take time for this cultural adjustment to take place, and I don’t want them to put too much stress on themselves. Again, I strongly advise them to reach out to a counselor or advisor, or to come to my office so that we can talk about it.
A lot of international students talk about difficulties making domestic friends. A key thing that often comes up is that most international students don’t know how to make small talk, whereas Americans are used to small talk. Like, you just walk up to someone and start talking about the weather, or ask them how their day is going. A lot of international students have difficulty starting conversations like that.
What I’m working on for early in the spring is a networking function. And I don’t mean ‘networking’ in terms of a workshop where I talk to internationals. I mean networking where they actually network. I want to put international students together in a room with American students, American faculty and American community members, and have the international students network as we teach them how to start a conversation. Then, they will actually practice networking with US students in that environment. I believe that there’s no growth in comfort. We have to make international students ‘uncomfortable’ in that situation, because if they only stick to the people they know or the communities they know, nothing is going to change. I want to put the international students in a situation where they are forced to network so that they can see how ‘networking’ in the American sense works. How it involves walking up to a faculty member and asking if you can do research with them. How it involves meeting other American students and starting friendships with them. This program will teach students how to do that, because I know how difficult it is.
AJ: International students encounter more difficulties than native students in finding jobs. What advice or resources do you have for international students when it comes to finding jobs and internships?
OO: I think this ties in with my previous answer in that it’s not so much a scarcity of jobs but a lack of networking skills. So many jobs in this country depend on networking. What you know will let you keep a job, but who you know will get you the job in the first place. So, we need to work on knowing people. I want students to expand their job search. Rather than just focusing on one position, I want students to go beyond Handshake. I want them to go beyond whatever opportunities are on campus. I want them to talk to alumni and to work with the alumni office. Students need to seek out companies, meaning that they need to get out of their comfort zones, develop their networks and go find those companies. They should also try and meet with international students from other schools, an opportunity for which will be part of the program I told you about earlier.
I would also recommend reaching out to companies, to see if they have unpaid internships that students could get college credit for. I think that, a lot of the time, students focus excessively on getting paid, and that it’s also important to focus on volunteering services or unpaid jobs, which can increase student’s knowledge and experience before starting their jobs after graduation.
For the program in the spring semester, my main hope is that international students participate. You know, a challenge I’ve faced as an ISS director is that we send information out saying we have this event, but a lot of the time, students don’t get that email. Or when they do, I don’t get a good response. I have programs, and I just need students to respond that they’re attending. I know it’s hard, because a lot of them have classes. But I need students to respond to the opportunities that we have, and to take advantage of them because they’re the ones who will eventually benefit.