Shridula Hegde’s first journey to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 2016 covered three continents, 11 time zones, more than 10,000 miles, and an array of questions and concerns.
Did suitcases get on the plane? What if they didn’t? Where is the hotel? Will Uber be available? Will there be food? When is orientation? What is the building name? Classes begin when? Where can I buy things? What about safety? This is so far from home.
Flanked by equally worried parents, the only child and first in her family to travel from India to the United States, found answers and reassurance from Nebraska’s international student welcome team at the bottom of a Lincoln Airport escalator.
“The university greeting team was amazing and comforting,” Hegde said. “I had no idea that was going to happen. And, there was one student greeter who was from India and she started talking to my parents.
“It was a perfect way to start my Nebraska experience.”
Big Red welcome mat
Nebraska has been putting out a proverbial Big Red welcome mat for international students arriving at the Lincoln Airport since fall 2015. The program launch was part of a larger directive to provide supports that help international students succeed in their first semester studying in the United States.
“We’ve fined-tuned the program since that first year, but the general idea remains the same,” said Teresa Lostroh, associate director of New Student Enrollment. “It’s extremely important to have a positive welcome experience right out of the gate. It increases our reputation as a welcoming university and it has positive impact on retention rates for our international students.”
In 2015, prior to expanding welcome and orientation supports, the International Student Barometer (a global benchmark of the international student experience) reported that 69% of undergrads from abroad were satisfied with Nebraska’s point-of-arrival experience. In the most recent survey (from 2017), the satisfaction level had grown to 92%.
An internal assessment completed at the conclusion of fall orientation activities during the week of Aug. 19 reported that 94.6% of undergraduates from abroad agreed or strongly agreed to feeling welcomed when arriving in Lincoln. And, in the same survey, 96.5% were very satisfied or satisfied with the university’s formal welcome.
Nebraska’s 2019 international student welcome team is comprised of 29 students, including team leads. The members include a number of students who — like Hegde — were once welcomed to the university as they arrived at the Lincoln Airport. Team members are from 10 countries and speak 15 languages. The team is part of the university’s New Student Enrollment program.
Armed with signage and wearing red T-shirts, welcome team members are positioned on the main floor of the Lincoln Airport and greet international students as they descend the escalator. Team members converse with the students, direct them to baggage claim and a nearby university registration desk.
At the registration desk, students check in, receive maps and other information, and confirm their destination for a shuttle bus. While the students wait for the shuttle, welcome team members mingle, making small talk and answering questions. The team includes individuals who speak corresponding languages, reducing communication barriers.
“Our goal is to make the student transition from the airport to the start of campus life as smooth as possible,” said Bosi Fang, a welcome team member and senior music education major from Lincoln. “I’ve found that being able to talk to them in Mandarin is a great way to connect and help put newly arrived students at ease.”
For the fall 2019 semester, Nebraska’s International Student Welcome team greeted arriving students Aug. 18-20. In that span, 115 international students flew into Lincoln and 270 participated in orientation sessions ahead of the start of the fall semester.
“I’ve traveled for 22 hours to get here and it really means a lot that the university was here for a welcome,” said Simon Chen, a freshman computer science major from Shenzhen, China. “I like that we do not have to worry about how we are going to get to campus. It will help me focus on school.”
Katie Brooks, a sociology major from Australia, flew into the Lincoln Airport specifically for the organized welcome.
“It was a long flight — I left at 9 a.m. yesterday and it’s now noon tomorrow back home. Getting to Omaha would have been much easier,” Brooks said. “But, knowing that I could land here and not worry about getting to campus was worth the extra time.
“This welcome has been even better than I expected.”
As her parents talked with a welcome team member three years ago, Hegde was able to quickly complete the check in process and learn about shuttle options to a downtown hotel.
“She was also from India and an only child,” Hegde said. “They spent the time talking about the food, transition to college and campus life.
Days later, the same student — who also worked as an orientation leader — led Hegde’s parents on a tour of campus.
“She really made a connection with my parents and they still ask about her,” Hegde said. “Her extra help settling my parents’ nerves was so helpful. The transition to college would have been so much more difficult without her help.”
The overall experience of the greeting coupled with international student orientation led Hegde to register to assist with the program. This summer, she participated in both international orientation and regular new student enrollment activities.
“The transition to college life can be difficult, especially for international students who are so far from the comforts of home and family,” Hegde said. “I know first-hand how big of an impact Nebraska’s welcome and orientation programs can have on students. And, I can’t think of anything more awesome than helping new students feel as welcomed as I did when I arrived in Nebraska.”