OPINION: The dissolution of International Place is an egregious loss for international students

3 international students running together and holding flags in their hands, one with a suitcase, all wearing I-Place shirts
(Crystal Yang • The Student Life)

In August 2017, when I was a bright-eyed first-year, I flew over 7,000 miles (11,000 kilometers) from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. It was the first time I had set foot in the United States in over 10 years.

As I approached the arrival area of Los Angeles International Airport, I remember spotting someone in a blue T-shirt with the words “International Place” and “NISSO Leader” emblazoned on it. I was instantly relieved and promptly shooed my dad away while I hopped into a van with my fellow international students to head to our new home: Claremont.

I didn’t know who anyone was yet, but being welcomed by the leaders of I-Place’s New International Student and Scholar Orientation made me feel safe and at ease. With three suitcases in tow, I embarked on a search for new friends, connections and roots.

By the time I finished the orientation program, I had found those and more — I had gotten a U.S. phone number, a Bank of America debit card and a proper duvet and furniture (yes, this was a big deal, considering I only had space to bring a measly pillow and blanket). I also received crash courses on culture shock, the CPT/OPT programs that allow F-1 visa students to work in the United States and countless other international student resources.

What I didn’t realize then was the prominent role that NISSO and I-Place would have in shaping my college experience. What I also didn’t know then was that future international students — namely, the class of 2025 and onwards — wouldn’t have access to the same experiences and level of support I’ve had from I-Place throughout the years, from my very first day in Claremont.

Though no official communication has been extended to the 7C community, the dissolution of I-Place, the international student office of the Claremont Colleges, is imminent. Previously, the office was a 7C resource before both Harvey Mudd College and Claremont Graduate University pulled out in 2019. Then this past summer, Charlotte Johnson, Scripps College’s vice president for student affairs, announced the impending closure of I-Place after this academic year to Scripps students in a virtual town hall.

The decision to close I-Place — without any explanation or announcement to the 7C community at large — is extremely disappointing and communicates a clear lack of understanding and consideration for international students’ needs and experiences. Given that I-Place is the only centralized cross-campus resource for international students at the Claremont Colleges, it is incomprehensible to me that individual schools feel that they can adequately take care of their own international students — that keeping I-Place intact isn’t worth the expense.

First, dissolving I-Place likely means losing a robust intercollegiate international student orientation. This is an egregious loss in itself, as NISSO is a comprehensive orientation program specifically catered to international students’ experiences. Logistically, most of the individual colleges simply don’t have the capacity to fully run their own international orientation complete with comprehensive workshops (about culture shock, academics, I-20 procedures, homesickness, microaggressions, etc.), banking and cell phone help, airport pickup service, family orientation activities and more. And yet, these are fundamental elements to a successful and holistic international, in-person move-in.

The orientation also provides students with immediate and direct access to a vibrant international community, one that is endlessly supportive and helpful in dealing with international-specific situations and difficulties on a social and emotional level.

As an example, over the past three years, I’ve often felt belittled and misunderstood whenever I expressed my unfamiliarity with American culture and history. When I first came to college, I didn’t know what Roe v. Wade was, I never watched the Super Bowl, I knew nothing about the U.S. electoral system and I had never been to a Costco. It was intensely frustrating when I mustered up the courage to ask American peers about these subjects, only to have the response be: “I can’t believe you don’t know that,” in conjunction with a sigh, an eye roll and a half-hearted one-sentence explanation. 

Even though I still feel deflated every time I receive this reaction, NISSO’s workshops and skits mentally prepared me for this exact scenario. Furthermore, international students always understood my curiosities, and older students in particular would always kindly and patiently afford me additional explanations whenever I needed it.

It was because of NISSO and I-Place that I, as someone woefully new to the United States and its culture, learned to wholeheartedly embrace Scripps and feel comfortable in Claremont. Without NISSO and the people I met during the program, I wouldn’t have known how to identify and tactfully address microaggressions against international students, how to navigate a politically active campus and how to assert myself in spaces where I was often the only person from outside the United States.

It’s true that not all international students have depended on I-Place. There are a number of international students who are also U.S. citizens, and therefore they may not have needed as much access to the resources I-Place provides (among privileges like not having to worry about visa issues and ability to work in the United States, they’re also not subject to getting kicked out of the country). I also recognize that some schools, like Pomona College, for example, have more solidified institutional structures in place to support international students, such as the Oldenborg Center and its language tables. Pitzer College also places an emphasis on international student education with its student exchange program, which the other 4Cs don’t offer.

I find it deeply disappointing that in my three years at Scripps, there has never been a singular staff member at my college, aside from those at I-Place, that I truly felt I could turn to for international student support. Though I was able to go to Scripps’ designated school officials for any visa-related questions, whenever I wanted to learn about anything remotely related to international students, I was always directed to I-Place.

I recognize that the Scripps international community is extremely small — we only represent 5 percent of the student body, while representation at the other 4Cs is higher — which is likely why we don’t have access to staff who understand our issues as holistically. As a result, Scripps students’ reliance on I-Place is arguably higher in comparison to students from the other colleges.

But setting discrepancies in levels of institutional support among the colleges aside, international students at the 5Cs need more support, not less. By nature of our identity and/or visa status, we face a completely different set of struggles in comparison to domestic students — ones that most domestic students, administrators, staff and faculty cannot begin to comprehend.

One staff member dedicated to international students at each college isn’t enough to address, combat or advocate for all international students on behalf of our time zone difficulties, academic adjustment, culture shock, language barriers, heightened homesickness, binding federal regulations and financial concerns (aid packages, scholarships, currency conversions, etc). Simply put, international students lack privilege and access in a multitude of areas that are often overlooked or unrecognized.

Given that I-Place is the only centralized cross-campus resource for international students at the Claremont Colleges, it is incomprehensible to me that individual schools feel that they can adequately take care of their own international students — that keeping I-Place intact isn’t worth the expense.” — Mabel Lui SC ’21

There are even more logistical matters that international students deal with, and the number of people that international students can go to for help, support and understanding regarding documents, forms, visas statuses and more is extremely limited. For as long as I’ve been a Scripps student, I’ve never come across a primary contact dean or senior staff (not designated school official) who could, off the top of their head, tell me how to apply for a visa, what an I-20 is, how to maintain active Student and Exchange Visitor Information System status, the difference between OPT and CPT (and what they stand for), how to get a Social Security number as an international student and how to submit mandatory annual tax forms.

Instead, I had to explain to them what these meant, after I learned about the details and intricacies of these topics from I-Place resources and staff.

It’s not a primary contact dean’s job to regurgitate international students’ F-1 visa rules and regulations, but my point is that as international students, we don’t have access to many people who know how to empathize with the complexities and difficulties of being an international student, because the implications and ramifications of the constraints we face are so foreign. Often, these difficulties are also unexpected — consider how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected international students in relation to changing policies, travel restrictions, time zones and more.

The significance of I-Place is nuanced and layered, and often goes unseen by the wider Claremont community. Aside from providing institutional resources, the office’s physical space and staff also act as a social and emotional support system. Having 24-hour access to a space dedicated to international students meant that I could play late-night board games with international friends during my first year, plop on the couch and watch my very first Bollywood dance videos and distract my friend as she frantically applied for OPT to work in the United States after graduation.

School-specific staff and resources will also not be able to truly replicate the campus-wide support that I-Place provides. Given the limited number of international students on campus, we’ve heavily relied on the community and programming (International Gala, International Festival and more) that I-Place provides in order to survive and thrive as international students at the Claremont Colleges, as well as celebrate our diverse backgrounds and perspectives. 

Furthermore, given the range of countries that international students come from, it is only when the 7Cs come together that many international students can meet and bond with people who also relate to their own culture.

But here we are — without an I-Place for the Class of 2025 and onwards.

This academic year will be instrumental in seeing how the Claremont Colleges plan to step up to support international students. To sufficiently support international students across the colleges, an intercollegiate international student orientation must be preserved, 7C international student events must continue, our designated student lounge must remain accessible and adequate staff (especially at Scripps) must be hired to support international students. International students need all of these to be able to thrive at the Claremont Colleges.

As a senior, I won’t be around during the next academic year to see if any of this actually happens. To younger international students: advocate for yourselves and your needs (and even if they are different from what I’ve outlined, I’ll respect that). To admin, faculty and staff: listen to all your international students and actively work to increase support for us.

It’s up to you to make sure our international community doesn’t dissolve with I-Place.

Mabel Lui SC ’21 is from Hong Kong. She is one of TSL’s current editors-at-large and previously served as TSL’s managing editor for life and style and opinions. She is also a Scripps International Community co-head and a NISSO leader. Bubble tea and egg yolk custard buns will make her happy.

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