The Many Nations of ‘Nova Nation

Karen Damara

With globalization steadily on the rise, it is interesting to note how today’s student seeks to “globalize” his or her college education by venturing off to a foreign country. The number of study abroad programs offered by universities across the nation has increased significantly in the last few years.

While most students choose to spend one semester in a foreign country, some choose to pursue their entire college education overseas, and Villanova is no exception in this “global pursuit.” A considerable number of students from different countries arrive at Villanova every year, either for a temporary exchange program or the four-year undergraduate program.

Currently, there are around 60 nationalities represented at Villanova. This past fall, the Office of Admissions received a record 606 international applications, of which 257 were accepted and 58 enrolled. This count includes 25 U.S. citizens who pursued their high school education abroad. International students comprise about 3.6 percent of the current student body.

The admission of international students to the undergraduate program began around 25 years ago under Michael Gaynor, director of University Admission. The initiative has definitely flourished since then.

“The admission of international students has become a major focus of the University,” says Candice Keith, senior associate director of Admission. “The goal is to become more diverse politically, religiously and culturally. The international students add an extra component to the student body in terms of what each brings to the classroom and to the community.”

Keith supervises the application process for international students.

“The main criterion that is looked at is how well they have done in their own educational system and whether they will be able to do the required work at Villanova,” she says.

Keith and Rev. Francis Chambers, O.S.A., associate director of Admission, are responsible for the recruitment of international students. Over the fall, they travel to various countries in Asia, Europe and Latin America to hold receptions and information sessions for prospective students. Other forms of recruitment include college fairs by alumni. For instance, Villanova has a strong alumni base in Germany that consistently organizes public college fairs for high school students.

However, the majority of international students find Villanova solely through the Internet. Moehtet Myint, a freshman physics major from Myanmar, says he found Villanova through the U.S. News and World Report rankings.

For those international students who make their choice of college based on information found on a Web site or in a brochure, it is truly a leap of faith.

“The Web site cannot tell you the whole story,” Keith says.

The majority of foreign students don’t see Villanova until they actually get here for New Student Orientation. For some of them, it is their first time in United States.

“Since I attended Music Camp, it gave me the extra time to adapt to the newness,” Myint says. “After that, I enjoyed Orientation.”

This experience can be overwhelming for a few.

“We try our best to help them in their transition to an entirely different culture,” says Stephen McWilliams, director of the International Student Office. “They hop on a plane and travel 8,000 miles to get here. That’s a big deal.”

ISO offers a variety of resources.

The office’s primary responsibility is maintaining Student and Exchange Visitor Information System records. Hubert Whan Tong, SEVIS and immigration specialist, is the head of this operation. SEVIS is a database employed by the Department of Homeland Security to keep a record of international students at universities in the United States.

Apart from the immigration aspect, the ISO patterns its services according to the needs of the students. Whether an incoming student needs a new bank account, a driver’s license or just a lesson on how things work in America, the ISO is there to help.

“We get you going, and in a year, you forget about us,” Whan Tong says. “And that’s how it should be. It means you’ve found your way. We want to see students get involved and grow.”

In addition to working with foreign students, the ISO also works closely with faculty from abroad.

“We have approximately 15-20 foreign faculty/researchers at any time,” Whan Tong says.

The ISO also works with the different cultural clubs on campus to support them as much as possible.

Another major resource in the ISO is the English as a Second Language Program.

“If English is not a person’s native language, there can be multiple difficulties,” says Debra Hoover, director of the ESL Program and an international student adviser. “The first step is to discuss the individual’s unique English language needs.”

Over the past 18 years, Hoover has been a resource for students for whom the English language presents a barrier. She holds individual learning sessions with students and helps them with their presentation skills, academic papers, pronunciation, grammar, reading, listening, comprehension and speaking skills. International students whose native language is not English are required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language in addition to the SAT. The ESL program, though run in the ISO, is open to anyone in the Villanova community.

“It is really an inspiration to see how students overcome obstacles through perseverance and how they are motivated and dedicated to succeed,” Hoover says.

As far as academics goes, Myint says he needed time to adjust.

“The learning approach in Myanmar is very different,” he says. “There is a lot of competition there. I went to one of the largest high schools in Myanmar, and there it was more about the teacher. Here, there is more interaction in the classroom.”

“We do our best to get students acclimated to the new system of education,” McWilliams says.

One of the other big challenges for students from abroad is not having the opportunity to go home over the shorter breaks. Most international students get to go back home only once a year over the summer, while a few also go home over winter break.

Myint, on the other hand, says he will not be able to visit home over the summer either because of visa-related issues. When asked whether he feels homesick at all, he says, “No, not at all! Simpson Hall is a closely-knit community. I did feel a little lonely over fall break though when everyone was away.”

“The international students can’t just run home for the weekends, and we realize that can be rough,” McWilliams says. “We try to make the office a warm and welcoming place where students can come when they get homesick.”

It has been a long journey for McWilliams, who has headed the ISO for 22 years now, but he is pleased that the original enthusiasm still remains.

“Debra and Hubert are really here for the students, whether they need legal advice or just simply someone to talk with,” McWilliams says. “Villanova prides itself on being a welcoming community, and that is exactly what our mission is.”

Along the way, he has met thousands of people from all over the world. He says he has had the benefit of virtually traveling across the globe right from Villanova’s campus.

“Whether it’s Asia, South East Asia, Fiji or Europe, you name the place, and I’ll tell you I know someone from there,” McWilliams says. “The wonderful thing is that we are still in touch with a lot of students.”

Though still small in number, the international student population contributes to the diversity that Villanova strives to attain.

“We’re definitely enriched by their presence, and hopefully they are by us,” McWilliams says.

*Contributions were made by Paul Kossof

A Little About:


Coompson is a sophomore electrical engineering major from Tunisia. Coompson was born in Nairobi, Kenya, grew up in Gambia and Ghana and lived in Tunisia for three years.

“I went to an international school where there were students from every continent except Antarctica,” he says.

Coompson had visited the United States before in the summer of 2006 when he attended the Young Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

When asked why he picked Villanova, he noted its small size.

Coompson is currently a part of the Sophomore Service Learning Community and says he finds it very enriching.

When asked what he misses most about Tunisia, he responds, “The food!”


Shan is a senior nursing major from Myanmar.

She says she recalls feeling down when she first got to the United States. Though she found Villanova very welcoming, she says seeing everyone with their parents at Orientation made her feel homesick.

What is truly amazing is that Shan has not been home for almost four whole years. Her mother visited her last summer after three years of separation. Shan has not seen her father since she got to Villanova.

The inability to go back home has to do with her visa. Shan says that if she were to return to Myanmar, she would have to reapply for a U.S. visa, which she has no guarantee of being issued. This presents a risk for Shan, in terms of completing her college education.

Shan says she thinks Villanova has transformed her into a mature and well-rounded person. Shan says she has a love for exploration and has made sure to do her bit of travelling in the United States. Though she has seen a lot of this country and likes living here, she still says she misses Myanmar, the land of pagodas.