Florida Tech’s International Diversity Develops Global Citizens

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Cultural charisma runs deep at university recognized for its international depth.

“I love the diversity!”

You hear it all the time in response to questions like ‘What makes Florida Tech unique?’ or ‘What’s your favorite thing about the campus community?’

People are constantly surprised, and then delighted, by the cultural diversity of Florida Tech’s student body.

In a class of 12 students, it’s no surprise to find two students from Oman, one from Estonia, another from Brazil, and a handful from the Northeast, Midwest and, of course, Florida.

And our cultural character is gaining acclaim. U.S. News & World Report ranks Florida Tech first in the nation for fostering international student experiences. We boast the most internationally diverse undergraduate student body in the nation and proudly proclaim our commitment to developing global citizens.

So how do we weave this cultural tapestry? Florida Tech’s international experience is ubiquitous—benefiting our international population and domestic students alike—through cross-cultural programs and events and that small-town, close-knit feel that means you can’t help but develop a shared sense of Panther pride.

Coming to America

Imagine the challenge of being a stranger in a strange land.

Fresh off his first airplane flight, Lakshmi Narasimhon Athinarayana Venkatanarasimhan, known as Simhon, arrived in the United States from India with just three suitcases to his name.

He had rarely traveled outside of his home state of Tamil Nadu, yet he wanted to pursue undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering in the United States.

He made that leap of faith—with his parents’ blessing and his sister’s support. She was already studying abroad in the U.S., so during his first two weeks in the country, she helped him establish all the basics, like a bank account and a cell phone. She accompanied him to move-in, and then she left.

“I was all alone,” recalls Simhon. “I was like, ‘what do I do now?’ I was very shy, so I didn’t approach anyone.”

It took him a while to break out of his comfort zone—to proactively meet new people, experience new things and take advantage of the opportunities on campus, he says.

Today, he is the coordinator of the Florida Tech Diplomat Program, a 12-year-old initiative of the Office of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), designed to help increase outreach, overcome culture shock and welcome international students to Florida Tech.

The program is a component of Florida Tech’s orientation experience, facilitated through the First Year Experience Office, which includes 15 dedicated international diplomats among a larger team of approximately 60 Panther Prep Leaders who run Orientation.

Simhon works with incoming students from his native India as well as neighboring areas like Pakistan or Sri Lanka. Over the summer, he will email these students to welcome them to the university and answer any questions.

Aaron Martes, of Aruba, served as the previous diplomat coordinator. He often worked with incoming students from the Caribbean and South America as well as The Netherlands because of their shared use of Dutch.

“We encourage diplomats to speak English with their incoming students, so the students develop their language skills, but say there’s a question that they don’t know how to say in English or it pertains directly to culture, that’s when a shared language is important,” he says.

For Martes, who also felt some isolation arriving to campus for the first time during spring orientation—a more minimal program than the elaborate fall experience—joining the Diplomat Program was important.

“I decided I wanted to participate in Orientation because I was fortunate enough to make lots of great friends when I arrived, and I wanted to help ensure that future students would be able to have the same incredible Florida Tech experience I did,” he says.

His favorite part is meeting new students when they’ve just left home, watching them adapt and flourish on campus, and then seeing those same students pay it forward by interacting with new incoming students the following year.

“I like to see how much they’ve grown and how much they can help new students because they remember what their own experience was like,” says Martes.

Enriching International Experiences

When ISSS was first established in the ’70s, its primary role was managing immigration and international documentation requirements. And while that is still a significant portion of its work, its programming has expanded in recent years to include social and cultural enrichment for international students and the university as a whole.

“International students are hugely important to this institution,” explains Judith Brooke, ISSS director. “They constitute a large percentage of the student body, and they contribute enormously to the diversity of this institution and to the overall experience of the student body.”

In short, they add value to every student.

So ISSS programs do the same. They cover the spectrum from acclimation to integration to education.

Helping international students feel comfortable in their home away from home is essential.

For example, the annual Welcome BBQ and Football 101 event, hosted by ISSS and the International Student Service Organization (ISSO), introduces international students to a traditional American cookout and the basics of American football.

“One thing that differentiates us,” says Martes, “is how close we are because everyone is pretty far from home. We look out for each other.”

This camaraderie extends to faculty and staff as well.

“A great example is Mr. Freddie at the SUB in the morning,” says Martes. “He knows almost every single student by name, and he knows what their order is.”

At the library, Jim Baucom, user experience specialist, makes an effort to greet students in their native language, says Martes.

“We’re really good at making sure someone, no matter which corner of the globe they are from, feels at home here,” he says.

Building a Global Campus

While outreach to international students is vital, developing cultural competence among the entire student body is a priority as well.

At monthly International Coffee Hours, international student groups share their cuisine and customs in a casual setting where the entire campus community is invited to broaden their horizons. One of Simhon’s favorite parts of the coffee hours is learning directly from the native people about their homeland—the best places to visit, the languages spoken, native song and dance.

“If I were to visit, I would have all the information,” he says. “It’s not something you get to learn every day.”

Florida Tech’s signature event for celebrating diversity and broadening cultural awareness is the annual International Festival.

In its 11th year, the event showcases a variety of international student groups as well as local cultural organizations that host country and diversity-themed booths displaying a variety of traditional clothing, literature, maps, flags and artifacts. Dance and vocal groups, bands and other performers fill the afternoon with live entertainment on Florida Tech’s outdoor stage, the Panthereum, while local eateries sell delicious ethnic foods in the Panther Plaza courtyard.

“The International Festival is unique in that it’s open to the community,” says Brooke. “It allows our students to share their culture with the community and vice versa.”

Florida Tech’s international activities and diverse student population, in turn, helps broaden the cultural landscape of the community.

“The university itself makes an important cultural contribution to the Melbourne community. Restaurants are opening that maybe didn’t open before, music, it all rolls into the community,” explains Brooke.

Martes concurs. “That’s something that a lot of people don’t know about Melbourne. We have a lot of restaurants with really authentic food from all around the globe.”

Fostering Global Citizens

At the heart of our university is a vision to facilitate successful careers for our students, conduct applied research for the benefit of mankind and produce a global citizenry that fully understands global issues, both culturally and environmentally.

Part of that commitment depends on the cultural exchange of our student body—peers collaborating to reach new heights.

Many programs on campus facilitate this exchange—from the University Experience first-year student seminar to our vast array of clubs and organizations and, very directly, to the work of ISSS.

“We developed many innovative initiatives that helped international students overcome cultural shock, adjust and have a wonderful experience at Florida Tech! We also focused on engaging American students in all of our activities and events too,” explains Khloud Shuqair ’15, past president of ISSO and former university diplomat.

Corin Lobo ’14, another former diplomat coordinator and current graduate student in engineering management from the United Arab Emirates, finds the value of campus diversity daily in many situations. Beyond the organized events, he says it’s in the way students “approach topics with distinct considerations and from varying angles, making ideas and projects thoroughly unique as a product of international coordination and cooperation.”

According to Florida Tech’s strategic plan, while international students and faculty are a significant percentage of the Florida Tech family, our core commitment to developing global citizens is much more than a count of countries.

“It is about ingraining in the curriculum, in the extracurricular activities and in the culture of Florida Tech that we all (faculty, staff and students) must be good stewards of the globe’s resources and, indeed, good citizens of this world in which we live,” reads the plan. “It is imperative that we take advantage of the opportunities afforded us by living and working with such a multitalented, culturally, ethically, religiously and socially diverse group of individuals. When someone spends time at Florida Tech, they must leave with an understanding of and, hopefully, a full appreciation for these components of today’s world and economy—that is, they become true citizens of the world.”

For Shuqair, that sentiment is proving true. After graduation, she returned to her native Saudi Arabia where she works as a management consultant helping governmental agencies achieve Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision socially and economically.

“My experience at Florida Tech was great. Not only did it improve my leadership, cross-cultural competency and time management skills, but it also gave me the chance make friends from all over the world and make an impact,” she says.

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Christena Callahan is editor of Florida Tech Today magazine.

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