As freshman Shelly Freund boarded the plane from El Salvador to the United States, she said the hardest goodbye was to her mother who is going through breast cancer treatment.

“I feel guilty for leaving,” Freund said. “But my mom told me to do this for her. So I am making her proud and she is living this through me.”

Freund describes leaving her home in San Salvador, El Salvador as hectic. A lot of thoughts crossed through her mind about whether she made the right decision to attend Elon.

“What was not going in my head at that moment,” Freund said. “I wondered if psychology is what I want to do, meal plans, what if the stuff I shipped doesn’t get there on time, but I never had the thought of ‘am I going to fit in.’”

Like Freund, many international students from all over the world leave their homes, their cultures and lifestyles to study at Elon University. International students at Elon attend international student orientation days before regular orientation begins for the rest of the class of 2022. This year’s began on August 21 and ends today, August 24. It includes different informational sessions, activities, and bonding for the students to get acclimated to campus and the start of their time at Elon.

According to Kristen Aquilino, assistant director for global student engagement, the number of international students coming to Elon this year is 51. This number may drop in the first few days until classes start due to travel plans or last-minute decisions made by the students. 

This year’s class is the largest cohort of international students to date. There are 29 countries being represented in this year’s cohort. Some of them are Australia, El Salvador, Latvia, Trinidad and Tobago and India, among others. 

“These students are brave,” Aquilino said. “Some institutions have more students representing a specific culture but we have students from all over the world.”

After the first day of international student orientation, Freund says that the welcoming atmosphere she’s received has made her feel at home. After learning about Elon from Hebe Fuller, associate dean and director of international admissions, at a university fair in her high school Escuela Americana in El Salvador, she had a gut feeling Elon was the right place for her.

“It feels warm and right at the same time,” Freund said. “I feel that I immediately fit in because the international students come from similar backgrounds as mine.”

From the first few sessions and bonding activities, Freund says she has enjoyed the small community is being formed within her cohort.

Like Freund, Aquilino says the international student orientation is a great way to allow the international students to form a community. These events that begin being planned in January have also allowed the Global Education Center to form a community with other parts and departments of campus that play a role in the organization of events like international student orientation. During the orientation, the students meet faculty, staff, the international orientation leaders, the international student ambassadors and the staff at the GEC, among others.

Junior Zoe Budsworth, who is an international student ambassador and from England, says she likes to see the international community come together in these few days and throughout the year.

“At the end of the day, we do different things throughout the year to bring them all back,” Budsworth said. “It is nice to see how they remain friends. It is a community to come back to.”

Shanna Van Beek, the communications manager of global education, said that one of the themes in Elon’s 2020 strategic plan was to have an unprecedented commitment to diversity and global engagement. The international students being part of the Elon community plays a major role in that commitment.

“It’s a wonderful moment for us to support that mission,” Van Beek said. “To see it in action on this community and to celebrate the international student community as a critical part to that commitment.”

After students like Freund make the move over to Elon, Van Beek and Aquilino agree that the transition is not always the easiest. Having the international student orientation helps the students establish themselves on campus, get to know some of the area and culture before the rest of the student body joins.

Freund says she chose to go to Elon for its beautiful campus and the welcoming atmosphere she felt when she toured. Van Beek said that the reason international students come to Elon vary.  

Some come for specific majors, programs, the campus; they have family or friends who attended the school, or want to experience what it is like to study in a small town in the United States.

“The most frequently cited reason of students attending Elon is study abroad,” Van Beek said.  “For international students, that’s a bit different because their time here is studying abroad. But I think that commitment to global engagement and intercultural agility are also attractive.”

Throughout the rest of the school year, the Global Education Center hosts different event and bonding activities for the international students to keep fostering their community. Beside being a resource for them, it also serves as a place where they can embrace their international identities.