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The World Is in Your Waiting Room

  • Staff and student leaders in the Davis International Center prepare for the 2020 International Orientation virtual closing ceremony.

  • Sultan Al Habsi ’22 is an international student from Oman who is studying economics and pursuing a certificate in Russian language and culture. He is currently the assistant student coordinator for the Davis IC Leaders.

By Sultan Al Habsi ’22

As an international student, people often ask me, “What was the most shocking thing when you first came to America?” My answer: “Absolutely nothing!”

I grew up with American culture seemingly everywhere — broadcasted and blasted to every corner of the globe, all the way to my little oasis of a homeland: Oman. I have found that many international students have this same experience. It is no coincidence that during my very first Davis International Center (IC) International Orientation group meeting, we joked about and bonded over American movies, American slang, and an American cornerstone: the glorious Target (although most of us had never been).

International Orientation, or IO, is typically a three-day program for first-year international students, with the goal of helping them get settled in, beat jet lag and learn the “lay of the land” before American students arrive. With this in mind, a typical International Orientation is crafted to be an introduction not only to American culture but also, and more crucially, to the daily American life that is too mundane to be on screens: healthcare, taxes and immigration laws. Information is relayed through a mix of fabulous skits, long presentations and intimate discussions. Community building is an important goal, as is providing facts, tips and reality checks for a real, full (and legal) transition to Princeton University and the United States.

This year, and in my role as assistant student coordinator for the Davis IC Leaders, our team faced a new challenge — rethinking IO in a virtual world. Given that new international students would be staying home rather than coming to the United States, much of our typical program wasn’t as relevant. Students wouldn’t need help purchasing a SIM card, setting up a bank account or learning to figure out sales taxes and tips. It was imperative, however, that they build a strong support system, develop an avenue for humor and stress relief, and find ways to deal with questions of alterity and belonging. 

Due to the pandemic, new international students were caught between two places: a home abroad where they lived in physically, and a virtual University campus that they focused on mentally. Their main concern was no longer an overwhelming, abrupt cultural shock coming to the United States; instead, they needed to learn to navigate the challenges of living and working in two separate worlds. For some students, attending classes on the University’s time zone comes at the cost of feeling isolated from one’s family and home, as they spend their nights working and their days sleeping and recovering. On the other hand, the desire to live on a regular schedule back home can result in missed social and academic opportunities with their University peers, as they live a more passive ‘pre-recorded’ college experience.

That is why, when planning for IO 2020, the Davis IC staff and IC leaders had to get creative. Instead of the jam-packed three-day extravaganza we usually host, we spread IO over five calmer weeks. We started by grouping new students with others in similar time zones, scouring the map from north and south to create a diverse, yet temporally cohesive group. This way, students did not feel like they had to sacrifice sleep to meet new, interesting and different people but rather find a group that would be sharing their experience — or, perhaps, struggle — all year. Over 130 students were placed in 11 groups, each led by a pair of our IC Leaders. Together, we represented over 50 countries, each providing unique viewpoints, perspectives about Princeton and the world at large. By seeking to introduce students to our new virtual campus, we also had the Zoom privilege of stepping into their rooms, countries and lives. This fostered a closer-knit, more intimate and — frankly — more vulnerable atmosphere to connect.

With so much change, it was important to our planning group that we still found ways to incorporate old IO traditions in a new form. Our crowd-pleaser, the annual scavenger hunt, took place as a virtual campus tour — with a side of Princeton trivia. Our adjustment and cultural shock skit, lovingly known as USA101, became a peer cinematic experience, starring our IC Leaders from around the globe acting out the moments that most entranced (or annoyed) them about America. It felt so novel and yet so familiar, facing new challenges yet ultimately creating an authentic Princeton experience that was relatable for all international students. 

Now, looking back at all the laughs this year’s IO captured, all the friendships it fostered and all the anxieties it reduced, it was definitely a worthwhile endeavor. While it was nothing like we expected — and a totally different flavor of planning, logistics and coordination — I truly believe we managed to build an even more cohesive international student community, one that is still working to provide support, plan events and bridge connections. As both an international student and the assistant student coordinator, I could not be more grateful for this amazing international community and all the tireless IC Leaders and staff that made this year’s virtual IO a reality.

Sultan Al Habsi ’22 is an international student from Oman who is studying economics and pursuing a certificate in Russian language and culture. He is currently the assistant student coordinator for the Davis IC Leaders.

Due to the pandemic, new international students were caught between two places: a home abroad where they lived in physically, and a virtual University campus that they focused on mentally.