As assistant director of international student services at Niagara University’s Edward A. Brennan Center for Language, Culture and Leadership, Kathryn DeCecco works with students from all over the world, providing each the necessary tools to succeed in a new country and at Niagara.
The university’s efforts this past year have resulted in a 25 percent increase in its international student population. Now, students from at least 40 countries attend Niagara University. Long before xenophobic sentiments and conditions made it more difficult for non-Americans to obtain visas, the Rev. James J. Maher, Niagara’s president, made it a priority to internationalize the campus for the benefit of all students.
“Our office is set up to support international students,” explained DeCecco. “My specific position provides support for international exchange and degree-seeking students – including academic, personal and logistical support.”
The general acclimation process for any given international student, according to DeCecco, involves a wide range of resources and staff. DeCecco, 36, who has a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and an MBA from Niagara University, uses her experience in the hospitality industry to help students. (She’s also a mom to two young children.)
“We offer an orientation and campus tour before the start of each semester,” DeCecco said. “The orientation covers topics such as safety, counseling services, campus life, employment opportunities and much more. We take them shopping to make sure they have everything they need to get set up. And of course, we show them Niagara Falls! We then remain a resource to them throughout the semester,” adding that they even help some students move into their residence halls.
“We make tutors available, but encourage students struggling with the language to take one of our ESL (English as a second language) classes. While some enroll in the ESL program before matriculating, others who’ve studied English in the past can take ESL classes for extra support and practice,” she said.
However, it’s not enough for DeCecco to ensure students have the necessary resources to succeed in the classroom – she emphasizes fostering relations between American and international students, too.
“International students want to interact with American students – it’s the whole reason they’re here – to experience cultural immersion,” said DeCecco. “We have a peer mentorship program where domestic students partner with international students to answer any questions about the campus, their studies or extracurricular activities. In addition, each residence hall has community advisors that help foster student connections.”
The Brennan Center also hosts cultural events, usually on the fun side, that allow international students to meet more students – both international and American. For example, the school recently hosted a Lunar New Year Party. Niagara also holds an annual Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas party, and “International Week” takes place each fall.
Of course, acclimating individuals of different ages, skills and cultures doesn’t come without challenges.
“Getting international students used to American classrooms and culture, especially the give and take that exists between professors and students, does take time,” DeCecco said. “Most aren’t ready to jump into a dialogue. Aside from language, many come from schools where teachers lectured and students listened.”
And some of the challenges DeCecco helps with can be quite specific, such as establishing bank accounts or helping students acquire driver’s licenses.
DeCecco manages to address them all. She credits her hospitality background with preparing her to go the extra mile to help others adjust and succeed.
“Having worked with Hyatt and our College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, I’ve been able to channel a hospitable mentality into doing everything I can to make students feel welcome, safe and comfortable,” said DeCecco.
Ultimately, according to DeCecco, inclusion is what guides Niagara in a time of increased prejudice.
“We’re sensitive to the fact that society can be intolerant towards some people of different backgrounds. Our goal is to encourage our American students, faculty and staff to be as welcoming as possible,” said DeCecco, stressing how important diversity and acceptance is not only to her, but to the entire university community.
“One of Father Maher’s objectives in his strategic plan is to grow our international population. Though it’s a great market for recruitment, it also gives our American students a cultural experience they may not otherwise have,” said DeCecco. “Having a diverse student population enhances the classroom experience for American students and obviously gives international students a unique experience.”