Starting college is bound to cause high levels of stress and excitement for any incoming student. But for international students spending their entire college experience abroad, the transition creates its own set of questions and possibilities.
To help these students, Notre Dame International created the International Ambassadors program, in which a select group of undergraduate leaders connect with international students before they arrive on campus and facilitate their transition to the university.
“We’re kind of like a liaison between ISSA (International Student and Scholar Affairs) and the students - voicing concerns there, helping to create solutions and make things better,” says Martina Fausto, a rising senior and a second-year International Ambassador.
Fausto studies psychology with minors in Chinese, digital marketing, and computing. She remembers her own experience living in Singapore and then attending Notre Dame.
“My international ambassador reached out to me the summer before I came in, and that was our first interaction,” she says. “When I got on campus, they were the first group of people who welcomed me and guided me through college.”
After an application and interview process, international ambassadors are selected to mentor a group of incoming international students. They become not only friends but personal guides to these students in their first months at Notre Dame. Fausto remembers the impact of these connections on her own college experience.
“You already knew that there was someone waiting for you on the other side,” she remembers.
“A lot of the international ambassadors, even if they weren’t the ones appointed to me, really became some of my friends throughout college.”
These positive experiences led Fausto to apply for the program and continue with it for a second year. This fall, one of the students in her assigned group is Ken Tam, an incoming freshman from Hong Kong who spent his high school years in Maine. Tam’s experiences abroad have inspired him to study international relations. Since he is already familiar with the American school system, he feels less worried about his upcoming first semester of college.
“I’ll be very excited to come to Notre Dame, since it’s actually a much larger community compared to my high school,” he says.
Tam became familiar with the University through participating in a program called iLED, or the International Leadership, Enrichment and Development Program. The program is a two-week summer experience focusing on international leadership. Tam’s sister also graduated from Notre Dame in 2019.
For Tam, it was the transition to high school in the U.S. that provided a plethora of learning experiences.
“The first year I went to that American high school, I didn’t know how to do a lot of things - including my own laundry! No need to mention I had to go to the mall myself,” he says, recalling the complicated process of setting up his own cell phone plan.
Tam is looking forward to a smoother transition to college with the help of Fausto and her peers in the program. Hopefully, he will be able to experience more programming with the International Ambassadors than the incoming class of international students last year did.
With complications stemming from the pandemic, the number of students able to participate in their first year at Notre Dame took a disappointing drop. Fausto was assigned students who were unable to arrive in the U.S. due to issues with visas, and her group of students continued to fluctuate. She remembers the first assembly to welcome the international students last fall.
“If we had not socially distanced everyone, only the first four rows of the auditorium would have been filled,” she recalls.
Typically, the whole auditorium would have been full. Many parents of the international students were unable to come to the U.S., so the International Ambassadors had to take on an extra parental role in helping the students to adjust.
With their focus on building connections, the International Ambassadors also had to change their planned activities in a socially-distanced world.
“We wanted to help them and make things easier for them in a time that’s already so rough,” she says.
They tried their best to have the international students meet each other, and the ambassadors shared their contact information for any questions or concerns.
Unable to complete typical tasks like taking the students to Target or helping them to move into their dorms, the International Ambassadors still had the power to build friendships.
“It’s nice because a lot of them still continued to be friends and be connected throughout the year, even after international orientation,” Fausto says.
This year, the ambassadors hope to have more opportunities for events with their assigned students. They are planning on taking students out to lunch, helping them to set up banking and phone plans at a resource fair, and arranging meetings to stay in touch throughout the academic year.
“We’re keeping connected and setting up group chats so that you’re not just flung into college,” Fausto says.
Tam is excited and ready for these activities to commence. In preparing for this first semester at Notre Dame, he was able to reflect on the benefits of his international education thus far.
“I guess the most important thing is to have an open mind,” he says. “Once you’re willing to study the culture, then you can make a lot of friends.”
Fausto has seen this same theme of friendship throughout her time as an international ambassador, particularly in a group of students that she mentored.
“They said, ‘Martina, you know we’re friends because of you,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s so sweet!’” she says.
These bonds carry the students throughout their college experiences. The core of the International Ambassadors program is forming strong connections, which can require extra understanding and compassion.
Meet the current International Ambassadors and learn more about the program.