BY: BROOKELYNN RUGGIRELLO, Student Life Editor
Traveling is the gateway to new experiences, opening eyes and minds to what life is like outside of the personal bubble that is cast by the minutiae of everyday life. At UM-Dearborn, the Office of International Affairs (OIA) is instrumental in making it possible for students to gain a multicultural experience through a number of international and study abroad initiatives.
Chiefly, the office assists international students who have been admitted to UM-Dearborn with gathering and processing the documents necessary to ensure the legitimacy of their stay in the United States. These documents include the Form I-20 and the DS-2019.
The office also assists with the processing of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) work authorization forms, which allow international students to hold internships in the U.S., as well as jobs once they graduate.
Erica Ross, the housing coordinator at the OIA, plays a major role in the office’s mission to make UM-Dearborn a more culturally diverse campus. As the Housing Coordinator, Ross is instrumental in ensuring that undergraduate international students at UM-Dearborn have places to live at The Union at Dearborn.
Once the students have a place to live, Ross ensures that international students have the tools to understand aspects of their living arrangements that may be confusing for them.
“If they don’t understand maybe a portion of their lease, or if they’re having roommate issues, then they can come to me and I can try to resolve the issues and help them understand what it is that is going on,” Ross said.
Referring to a group of Brazilian students, Ross noted that each nation has their own set of policies and program regulations that the OIA must adhere to while their students are attending UM-Dearborn. In this instance, Ross housed the Brazilian students directly at Fairlane Meadows through a program that she set up herself.
The OIA also does its own recruiting around the world in an effort to get more international students to come to UM-Dearborn. Currently, the office has people stationed in the Middle East to recruit for the 2016 semester. In the past, they have held recruitment efforts in Germany, Brazil, Canada and Ecuador.
“We’re doing recruiting kind of all around the world, trying to get more international students to come here and experience UM-Dearborn,” Ross said.
Ross said that the OIA’s recruiting efforts stem from an initiative to make UM-Dearborn into a more “cultural campus.”
“We want to be able to reach across the world, have an impact around the world,” Ross said. “So not just here in little Dearborn or Michigan, but around the world, because our students will have the opportunity to become more diverse in their interactions.”
Ross said that this diversity within the student body will make students more understanding of people from other cultures.
“When they get into the real world and join the workforce, they’re going to be working with people from different religious backgrounds, ethnicities, different belief systems, and if you’ve worked with someone from India, it’s not a total shock when you’re actually working with them, because now you understand how they work and where they’re coming from when they say certain things to you,” Ross said. “So, it’s a good thing — the diversity.”
In addition to making it possible for international students to study at UM-Dearborn, the OIA also coordinates a number of study abroad opportunities for American students.
“I can basically assist a student with going just about anywhere they’d like to go. I can’t guarantee everywhere, but just about anywhere they’d like to go,” Ross said.
Ross took over as the OIA’s acting Interim Study Abroad Coordinator in December of 2014 after the person formerly holding the position retired. She is currently leading an effort to make students more aware of just how many study abroad opportunities are available to them.
“The university has a number of study abroad programs, and so what I’m trying to do right now is get the word out because there are faculty members who take students on trips,” Ross said. “And then there’s students who were interested in study abroad, but they don’t know how to go about going abroad and pursuing that and finding out what’s available to them.”
The OIA also works closely with the Ann Arbor and Flint campuses to give students the opportunity to travel with programs offered by the other universities as well.
“It’s not necessarily a coordinated effort, but it can be,” Ross said. “So, if we don’t have something that they’re interested in doing, they can travel with Flint or Ann Arbor.”
Ross made it clear that timing is paramount in planning a study abroad trip, as there is much to be done before the student can travel.
“Timing is very important in planning the study abroad trip,” Ross said. “Let’s say we’ll start working about six months to a year in advance so that you have time to contact your academic advisor, find out what classes would be best for you abroad. You need to speak with financial aid. You need to know what the deadlines are for scholarships if you’re a need-based student.”
Ross was quick to note that a student’s financial status doesn’t have to be the final say in studying abroad.
“Our students don’t know that there’s a number of scholarships available to them here on campus to study abroad,” Ross said.
One such scholarship is the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship for Undergraduate Study Abroad, which awards U.S. citizen undergraduates with up to $5,000. Ross said that the Gilman scholarship made it possible for one UM-Dearborn student to study abroad in Costa Rica and to take her son with her.
“They went to Costa Rica for I believe one semester and she said it was a life-changing experience,” Ross said of the aforementioned student. “She said that her son was just immersed into the school that he enrolled in and he had a few friends, and she said that she could see the change not only in herself, but in him, too.”
Bayan Jaber, a junior at UM-Dearborn and an international studies major, is another student who the OIA helped to experience studying abroad. Jaber traveled to Beirut, Lebanon this past summer and took a course at the American University of Beirut.
“My experience abroad was like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” Jaber said. “It was a dream come true to be exposed to a university that I had dreamed about attending since I was 15 years old. I felt like a regular student in the best way possible, all while observing the differences in the culture between Beirut and the United States. My experience has definitely changed my life.”
Having the experience of studying abroad has made Jaber realize the importance of the university continuing to offer similar opportunities.
“It is crucial that the university offers these opportunities because gaining different outlooks and perspectives can very literally change someone’s life,” Jaber said. “Existing in this world, tucked away in your own little bubble is one thing, but stepping outside of your comfort zone and taking healthy risks that might make you temporarily uncomfortable are what help you to truly live in a world in which you are aware that there is life that may be more or less complex than yours and that you are a part of a grander scheme of things.”
Ross also expressed the importance of UM-Dearborn offering study abroad opportunities.
“It’s important because we want our students to have all of the experiences and opportunities that every other student has,” Ross said. “We don’t want our students not to have certain opportunities just because we’re a small, commuter campus. As a university, we have to begin to back and push and support these initiatives, these programs and the faculty members who would like to develop these programs. It can be detailed, it can be a lot of work, but it’s fun. It’s worth it.”
Although students studying abroad are engaging in academic pursuits, Ross said that the experience is ultimately about so much more.
“I often tell students that you’re not just going there to gain some academic experience,” Ross said. “You’re going there so that you can change and grow as a person. So that you can become more enlightened about how the world works outside of the Mitten. So, get outside of the Mitten, get outside of the United States.”
For more information about studying abroad, visit http://umdearborn.edu/internationaloffice or call (313) 583-6600.