Studying in another country can be daunting. When it comes to navigating an entirely new culture and environment, everything – from the language, customs, and social norms – can be different from what students are used to. As challenging as the experience is, there are resources available to help international students navigate their transition to IU, resources like the International Student Ambassadors (ISA).
The ISAs operate on both the Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses under the Office of International Services (Bloomington) and Office of International Affairs (Indianapolis). ISA’s members are international students who have already gone through the experience of moving to a new country and understand the challenges that come with it; as such, they are uniquely positioned to offer guidance and support to prospective international students.
The main goal of ISA is to welcome and assist international applicants. This includes helping with the application process, answering questions about the university and the host country, and offering advice on how to make the most of the international education experience. Each year, these student workers help hundreds of prospective and new students navigate applying to IU and on the way to their joining the Hoosier state’s community. ISAs are dedicated, passionate students who use their experiences, interests, and skills to make IU a welcoming and supportive environment for international students. The group provides a supportive community for international students, guidance and support for prospective applicants, and opportunities for leadership and personal growth. Ambassadors come from a wide range of countries, cultures, majors, and communities, creating a unique community that benefits all of IU – through their art, their leadership, and their experiences, ambassadors enrich the university community, creating a culture of creativity, excellence, and inclusion.
We sat down with four of this year’s ISAs to hear more about the experience of going from new international students to IU experts shepherding the next generation of undergraduates and graduates to college success.
Akshaya Singhal – IU Bloomington, BA in Fashion Design
You have made it this far – you can do it!Akshaya’s advice to students
Meet Akshaya Singhal, a senior from Bahrain majoring in Fashion Design and minoring in Apparel Merchandising. Already slightly familiar with IU Bloomington through a cousin who attended, Akshaya was drawn to the campus herself by the number of international students who come to the university every year. With the second largest international student population in the state at the Bloomington campus, IU proved to be an ideal place to foster community – especially as an ambassador.
“When you’re an international student, it can be hard not to feel lost in the crowd,” she says. “But there’s no ‘groupism’ among the ISAs. There’s so many different backgrounds, cultures, and identities, and everyone shares the experience of being a student abroad – it’s almost impossible to feel out of place.”
The sense of community that ISAs provide is a theme throughout the team, but one that Akshaya didn’t find until later in her college career. “I actually didn’t know you could apply to be an ISA as a freshman, so I didn’t apply until my second year at IU,” says Akshaya. “My friends were talking about it, and I realized it was a great way to not only meet other international students, but to help them through the same experience I had just gone through myself.”
“Being an ISA has impacted the way I view myself, and the way I view IU. When I’m with the other ambassadors, all the ever-present Western influence and culture of the Fashion Design program disappears,” she explains. “We come together to share our experiences, reminisce and reflect on home, and connect with each other.”
Her time at IU hasn’t been without its challenges, though. She became an ISA the same year the university went into lockdown at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; as campus safety regulations kicked into gear, many students struggled to stay connected.
“Despite the stress and separation of the lockdown, the student ambassadors tried to stay in touch and keep talking to each other,” she recalls. “We always work together to overcome hardships as a community. There’s a sense of understanding between us; we know the struggles we’ve faced just to get here, so any adversity that comes our way is something we can tackle.”
Even now, Akshaya carries this sense of understanding in her work as an ambassador as well. “Prospective students ask a lot about how to survive college, especially in an entirely new country. I understand their worry. I tell them what my mom reminds me to do whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed: Remember the effort you’ve put into getting where you are.”
Tejas Helwatkar – IUPUI, Masters in Computer Information Science
Every day, I look forward to helping more students thrive.Tejas’ motivation
Meet Tejas Helwatkar, a Masters student from India studying Computer Information science. Since he began his work at IUPUI last spring, Tejas says it’s been an “amazing journey” that has inspired cultural exploration and personal growth. After choosing IUPUI for its rigorous Masters program, Tejas discovered an opportunity for connection, too.
“When I got to IUPUI, I was connected with current international students, who told me about their positions as ambassadors,” he says. “I looked at the ISA social media page and felt inspired to apply. As both a student and an ambassador, the community has been very friendly and welcoming to me. It offers me a chance to continuously interact with students that have a different background. It’s broadened my horizons in a way I’m so grateful for.”
Before moving to Indianapolis, Tejas had no personal experience with International Student Ambassadors, so he recognizes the significance and impact of his position in guiding new students.
“As an ambassador, it’s very likely you’ll be one of the first people prospective international students talk to. Over the course of interacting with students, you become a role model for them. It’s an honor to be a part of their journey, to provide that guidance and represent the university in a way that promotes growth.”
“We have quite a mixture of students from all over the world, and to come so far from home, I think it’s important to feel welcomed over here. As an ambassador, I meet so many people and understand how important it is for me to get their perspective, learn more about them, and use my own experiences to guide them through this transition.”
His advice to students? “Keep an open mind, and don’t sell yourself short. Students are more adaptable than they realize – even if it feels overwhelming now, give it a few months and you’ll have gotten so much farther than you thought possible.”
Arissa Maeyama – IU Bloomington, BA in Management and Operation Management
I’ve found a community I can count on.Arissa’s thoughts on IU
Arissa Maeyama is a senior from São Paulo, Brazil, studying Management and Operations Management at Kelley School of Business. Arissa knew she wanted to study in the United States for its holistic view of students – an emphasis on extracurriculars and community involvement in addition to grades. With the academic prestige of Kelley School of Business and the traditional American experience in its campus culture, IU was an ideal choice.
“I had the chance to tour the Bloomington campus before committing,” she says. “The Office of International Services connected me with an ambassador, who shared his experience at IU and kept in contact with me afterward. When I came to IU, I saw the applications for positions like his were open – I knew then that I wanted to continue the guidance I had received as a prospective student, and help other international students explore and adjust at IU.”
“In my time as a student and ambassador, I’ve come to realize how much the International Student Ambassadors provide a safe space, for me, prospective and current students. Despite such a wide range of backgrounds, we’re all connected by the experience of studying abroad in America and the challenges that come with that. ISAs come together to form a community where our cultures and experiences can be shared openly!”
Arissa emphasizes the significance of being able to embrace cultural and national identity while on campus, and the sense of belonging she’s found since arriving at IU.
She recalls, “I was at Wells Library and overheard another student speaking Portuguese. I don’t think I’d encountered anyone speaking my native language at IU at that point, so I was really excited. I spoke to the girl, and she told me about the Brazilian Student Association – as it turns out, I was talking to its president! She recommended I come check the group out.” Arissa joined, served as Marketing chair, and then served as President herself – as an international student leader within and outside of ISA, she’s had the opportunity to provide other students with the same sense of belonging she’s found during her time at the university.
“My experience at IU has been totally different than I thought it would be,” Arissa reflects. “I was skeptical to come to Bloomington and stay for 4 years. Looking back, I’ve had so much fun, and met so many great people that I resonate with, beyond just studying at Kelley. It’s because we study at IU.”
Yazan Khan – IUPUI, BS in Mechanical Engineering
Being an ISA has changed my life.Yazan’s thoughts on ISAs
Yazan Khan is a third-year Mechanical Engineering student at IUPUI. Yazan was drawn to IUPUI for its downtown campus and engineering program, but after arriving on campus, another aspect of student life caught his eye.
“I was interested in seeing what the work culture of America was like,” he says. “I saw a job posting pop up, and when I saw that it was about helping international students, I jumped on the chance to apply.”
Since becoming an ambassador at IUPUI, Yazan has worked to expand his reach as a peer and role model. He works as both a Lead ISA and the group’s Content Marketing Assistant. In that role he’s responsible for attending events and tours, shooting videos, and posting Instagram stories for the organization. This involvement – from talking with prospective students to creating the content to reach them in the first place – stems from Yazan’s guiding philosophy as an international student: put yourself out there.
“When you’re so far from home for the first time, the simplest things can feel terrifying and impossible to overcome,” he admits. “The best way to adjust is to just go – to festivals, to get-togethers, to workshops, to anything and everything. Any campus event that strikes your interest is a chance to become more familiar with the new environment. You can adjust, and you can thrive.”
Most importantly, Yazan encourages reaching out.
“Always be open,” he advises, “and don’t be afraid to talk to people! You never know who will become your next friend.
“In my second year, I was playing basketball when three students came up to me, and they said, ‘Oh, I saw your Instagram stories. Thank you so much for helping us out. You really helped me,’ because I sat with them and helped them apply for their visa on Zoom. They recognized my face. They came up to me just to say thank you. That was a great feeling, and now they’re some of my best friends here.”
“Being an ambassador comes with a sense of responsibility,” he says. “Since I arrived at IUPUI and began work as an ISA, I’ve had to mature – people are depending on me to be a guiding force, someone they rely on. It’s such a rewarding experience to put in the work and see it pay off in professional and personal growth.”
“Being connected to so many people and understanding how work culture differs has been an invaluable experience,” Yazan says. “I’m a part of a group that I can relate to, who help people, and I know I’m making a difference.”
Want to learn more about the ISAs, or interested in apply to IU?