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Helping International Students Through: 5 Questions with International Student Advisor Lee Seedorff

Lee Seedorff is the senior associate director of the University of Iowa’s Office of International Student and Scholar Services, a school with over 3,500 international students. Jane Dou, a Chinese student at the University of Iowa, wanted to find out how an international advisor like Lee communicates with her many charges and what challenges she encounters in working with foreign students.

Lee said the University of Iowa begins talking with international students before they even arrive on campus, offering pre-arrival checklists to prepare students for what they need to know to come to America, and then continuing with orientations and special programs to help international students navigate their life in the U.S.

So after all that communication experience, what does an international student advisor have to say about communicating with international students? Here are Jane’s 5 questions with Lee Seedorff.

1. What are the most common topics during your communication with international students?

Lee: Well, just by the nature of what we do a lot of it is immigration-related. Students are coming in because they may need to extend an immigration document or need authorization for something, or to make sure they are following the immigration rules they are supposed to follow. Much of what we do is related to that.

But outside of that, there is still a fair amount of just personal issues. Maybe people are having conflicts with their roommates - that’s definitely a common one. Or sometimes workplace, particularly with graduate students - they’re having conflicts with their graduate advisor or lab supervisor.

At the beginning of the semester we see more adjustment issues. Students feeling they are not connected, they are feeling lonely, like they want to go home.

Hear Lee talk about how the University of Iowa stays in touch with foreign students:

2 So when you talk to international students, do you encounter some communication challenges, like some students who can’t speak fluent English?

Lee: Sometimes. But I will say that’s actually rare. Most of the students who are coming here have pretty good English conversational skills, so just meeting and discussing something with a student in person it’s rare that I encounter problems like that.

Definitely there are some names that are difficult for me to figure out how to pronounce. But from time to time we have workshops for our office staff and invite people in to go over name pronunciation. We have done that a couple of times with, for example, Chinese names. So I am not going to say I am that good, but I am probably better than many Americans are.

Of course, because you have encountered so many Chinese students, right?

Lee: Yes, we have good practice. But definitely, there are other Thai names, Vietnamese names. We always have some practice we need to do, definitely.

3. For many international students, they haven’t had a lot of chances to talk to American people, so when they communicate with you, would you give them some suggestions on how to improve their communication skills or other things?

Lee: Sometimes students do ask us about that. For example, just a few weeks ago I had a student asking me what’s considered rude in American culture. He gave me a couple of examples of some things that had just happened to him in a store when he was making a purchase, or in a conversation with someone on the street. [He wanted to know] whether or not the person he was speaking to, who was an American, was being rude to him or if that was normal behavior.

4. Could you tell us about a time you felt particularly unsatisfied with your abilities to help a student?

Lee: I think most often when I was unsatisfied or when I was very frustrated it has to do with when students are caught up in immigration regulations that don’t permit them to do something. Or there’s an administrative process that’s happening and we cannot get that resolved.

It’s truly frustrating because those types of things really impact peoples’ lives, and that shouldn’t be the case. I mean, bureaucracy should never end up meaning somebody has to go home, but unfortunately that has happened. I am not talking about people who violate immigration laws, but I am talking about just the timing of when an application received, those types of things. It is frustrating.

And then the other thing that can be really difficult is when there are mental health issues that just can’t be solved, and can’t be helped sufficiently. So sometimes that means students do have to end up going home as well.

5. Do you have any suggestions for international students on how to be successful in society, social life, their personal life?

Lee: I guess the number one suggestion would be: always seek out sources of help. Whether it’s talking to your professors or your teaching assistants if you are struggling in a class, talking to our office, your academic advisor.

For students who are really struggling or feeling emotionally down and depressed, we recommend our campus counseling office. I know for some students that’s not the natural place that they would consider going, but we are really fortunate where we have a counseling office who actually has psychologists on staff who were international students themselves and understand what a lot of the students are going through. So that’s always a good resource we encourage students to go to.

We encourage students to get involved with campus activities. And also, it’s hard, but to meet to other students outside of your comfort zone, particularly either American students or students from other places where you are not from. That’s where the big challenge is: what do you do, because they are probably shy and don’t know what to talk about, just like you do. But what do you do to step out of your comfort zone and try to make that connection? So we try to help with that when we can.

So just encourage them to step out and open their mind, right?

Lee: Sometimes, it is just like jumping in the pool, you know? You just have to hold your breath and do it.

Listen to this conversation: