Amy Richwine acknowledges that the 25 international students who arrived from 16 different countries for a special undergraduate orientation at Washington and Lee this week will have experienced an understandable culture shock.
"Most will be coming here from urban areas, and I think that coming to a rural area like Lexington is even more challenging than coming to the United States," said Richwine, associate director of international education at W&L.
Until they actually get to Lexington, many students are unaware of what their surroundings will be, added Larry Boetsch, director of international education.
"Amy is especially good at helping them see what advantages they will have from a setting like this," Boetsch said. "Lexington may not have the services or entertainment they're used to having in an urban area, but there are plenty of virtues associated with a bucolic environment and with, for example, the opportunities for outdoor recreation."
The orientation schedule is designed with these issues in mind. “Business” sessions introduce the new students to legal issues and practical matters to assist in their transition to the U.S. Outings range from an afternoon at Goshen Pass, a longtime favorite spot for W&L students to a shopping trip to the local Walmart to the Ghost Tour of Lexington. As Richwine notes, the students do not pull up at W&L in vans filled with supplies like their American classmates, making the shopping trip a critical first step. And the Ghost Tour gives them a walking tour of the town, as well as some local history.
"Our goal is to give them time to get their feet on the ground, get over the jet lag, and take care of basic things like opening a checking account, getting supplies and arranging a cell phone plan," said Richwine.
Richwine notes that the cell phone has become one of the first things international students want when they arrive, since it helps keep them connected with friends and families back home.
An annual highlight is the Across Cultures session in which six upperclass students lead discussions about U.S. culture, southern culture, Lexington culture and W&L's distinctive culture.
"The most interesting portions have to do with Washington and Lee's academic culture," said Boetch. "None of these students has any idea what this university is going to be like. They come from completely different systems of higher education. The idea of a relationship with a faculty member is not anything that many of them have ever considered. They'll ask, 'You mean you talk to a faculty member outside class? What would you talk about?' It's all new to them."
This year, once the international students have undergone their own orientation session, they will join members of their class who are participating in W&L's Leading Edge pre-orientation program. The Leading Edge provides incoming first-year students with the opportunity to begin their college careers with friends, a sense of community, sharpened teamwork and leadership skills, and a memorable, meaningful and challenging experience. The program has three different tracks — an Appalachian Adventure with backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail, the Volunteer Venture with service projects in six cities in the region and the new Leadership Venture with sessions on campus and in Washington designed to offer perspectives on leadership.
Richwine observes: "By participating in these pre-orientation trips, the students can broaden their perspectives and their friendships. International students obviously connect with one another in a special way that carries through for all four years. In the pre-orientation trips, they will be working closely with other classmates in these informal settings early in their careers, and we think that will make a difference to their transition."
The entering international undergraduate students come from Argentina, Bulgaria, China, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Canada, Costa Rica, Russia, Nigeria, Brazil, Vietnam, South Korea, West Bank, Mongolia, Barbados.
There are also 10 international students at the W&L School of Law hail from six different countries: Canada, China, Denmark, Ireland, Nepal, South Korea.
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs