Published November 15, 2012
Conversations in several languages swirl through the busy North Campus office of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS).
A knot of Chinese engineering undergraduates pick up brochures about renting off-campus apartments, while a Russian student studies the world map on the wall and staff members conduct a tense discussion about how to proceed with another student’s immigration paperwork.
The copy machine hums and phones ring as people laugh, talk and jostle each other in the narrow hallways. Navigating this sea of activity is Ellen Dussourd, director of ISSS.
The ISSS walk-in service area in 210 Talbert Hall is a main point of contact between UB and its 5,000-plus international students. During peak times of the semester, the ISSS staff of four international student advisers and four graduate assistants can interact in one day with more than 250 students representing more than 100 countries.
ISSS this week is hosting UB’s International Education Week, part of an annual celebration of global cultures sponsored by the U.S. departments of State and Education. The schedule, which runs through tomorrow, includes a dizzying array of multicultural activities and performances, including two keynote events on the theme of “Arab Spring in Focus,” as well as international student club performances, academic lectures and career workshops.
In addition to planning and organizing IEW, Dussourd’s office ensures UB’s compliance with immigration regulations as they apply to international students, and handles related processes and paperwork that dictate the students’ course loads, as well as their employment, travel and vacation time. ISSS also educates the students about immigration benefits for which they are eligible, including a yearlong, off-campus work experience included in their stay.
The office organizes International Student Orientation each semester, and as many as 12 field trips each semester and during the summer to give international students a taste of American culture, whether that’s a peek at Niagara Falls, a hike in Letchworth State Park, a cross-country skiing or snowshoeing trek, or a trip to the Buffalo Philharmonic or a Sabres hockey game.
It doesn’t stop there. ISSS produces three weekly e-newsletters and an annual calendar of customized workshops for international students and employees, and UB departments, and is heavily involved with safety, emergency and wellness programs affecting international students.
The main goal of all this work, Dussourd says, is to help UB’s international community deal with the inevitable government red tape and bureaucratic challenges of attending a major research university and living in a large U.S. city.
With her background in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), Dussourd has spent the past 13 years at UB unraveling the complex “language” of U.S. immigration law. More than 95 percent of UB’s international students are on F-1 and J-1 visas. Students’ immigration status is affected by many factors, including their academic standing, and ISSS is there to ensure that they comply with U.S. immigration regulations and that their immigration paperwork is in order. To do that, Dussourd and her staff have developed a “triple-check system” to dot all i’s and cross all t’s on students’ immigration paperwork.
“My staff is terrific—they have diverse aptitudes that balance mine. We work hard to maintain a friendly environment where there is also zero tolerance for error. Our goal is for our international guests to focus on their academics and on enjoying their stay here while also maintaining their immigration status,” Dussourd says.
She is proud of UB’s leadership in working with the federal government, which tightened many international travel and visitation regulations after 9/11. UB was one of the first universities to submit data via batch into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, known as SEVIS, a national database of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that monitors nonimmigrants while they are enrolled in school or in exchange visitor programs.
For scholars, ISSS operates in a separate channel to provide them with similar services, especially income tax assistance through a series of online webcasts that are used by many other universities.
The office works with many units across campus, including Campus Living, the Office of Off-Campus Student Services, the Undergraduate Academies, the English Language Institute, UBit; Counseling and Wellness services, and Student Judicial Affairs. Connecting ISSS activities with a variety of other student programs is essential, Dussourd says.
Stephen Dunnett, vice provost for international education, adds that the support services provided by ISSS are “critical to UB’s success in recruiting and retaining a growing number of international students.”
“We are indeed fortunate to have one of the most dedicated and effective ISSS directors in the country,” Dunnett says. “A highly committed internationalist, Ellen recognizes the importance and contributions of our international students, and works unstintingly on their behalf. She and her staff do all they can to assist our international students and scholars to adjust to life and study in the U.S., and ultimately succeed in their programs.”
Hadar Borden, director of the Undergraduate Academies, says it’s “an absolute pleasure” to work with Dussourd. Borden’s office works with a similar purpose, offering a Global Perspectives Academy to all undergraduate students that incorporates international cultures into academic opportunities and social activities. The academies and ISSS co-sponsor UB’s Global CINEMAspectives , a film series that runs throughout the year.
“Encouraging students, faculty and staff to explore cultures and topics from different perspectives is inherent to the mission of the academies, making our collaboration a natural fit,” notes Borden
Perspective and translation are important aspects of Dussourd’s job. She has developed several workshops to help staff and faculty better understand the needs of UB’s global population, including tips on how to advise, teach, socialize with and provide customer service to international students.
People from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds think and act differently from each other, she notes. “What’s appropriate and useful to a Chinese student can mean something vastly different to, say, an Indian student.”
Being “lost in translation” can lead to some interesting situations, some amusing and some serious. For example, the Indian word for grade or level in school is “standard” and “sessional” is a mid-term exam. The word “paper” means “exam” and “tuition” actually refers to an Indian “cram school,” or private school, where students are tutored and take extra classes.
And “mugging up?”
“That means cramming for a test,” Dussourd says with a laugh, adding that foreign students often get confused by American slang. When they first arrive at UB, she says, “they often have no idea what ‘TBA’ or ‘rain check’ or even ‘course credit’ mean.”
Social norms also can vary greatly among cultures, Dussourd says. Individuals from one country may typically be “blunt and to the point,” while those from another country may feel offended by a direct question or demand. She recounts a time when a student requested mediation to get out of her lease with her landlord. Personal connections—knowing someone who knows someone—is an assumed way of getting things done in certain countries, she explains, where in the U.S., the process is more bureaucratic and impersonal.
Before joining UB in 1999, Dussourd earned a bachelor’s degree in French at Georgetown University and two master’s degrees in teaching and international management. During her 30-plus-year career, she has lived and worked in France, Japan, Cameroon, the former U.S.S.R. and Mauritania, and came to UB after serving as program director for Indiana State University’s Intensive English Program. She says she got her start in ESL teaching during a stint with the Peace Corps in Cameroon, where she taught English as a Foreign Language at a government high school.
Her transition from program director of an ESL program serving 100 students to college administrator responsible for more than 5,000 international students hasn’t been easy, but Dussourd maintains that “I still love what I do, because it’s at the core of what UB is and can continue to be—an international university with a diverse set of cultures and communities.”