Carla Coppi and the staff of our Center for International Education, along with wonderful volunteers, do an amazing job of mak-ing students from 103 countries feel at home on our campus and in our communities.

“I never would have had the courage to do what they do,” says Carla, a Royalton native who began her career in our international program as a student worker during her undergraduate days. She subsequently became a graduate assistant as she pursued her master’s degree in vocal performance — she dreamed of being an opera singer in Chicago or perhaps New York — and as graduation approached, she learned there might be a possibility of a full-time position in the program.

Facing that fork in the road, Carla chose to stay.

That was a great decision for us and for the thousands of international students Carla has befriended and supported since 1985. She started as a foreign student adviser and has served as assistant director, associate director and interim director. I had the pleasure of promoting her to permanent director two years ago.

Carla has never regretted her career choice.

“Can you imagine what it is like to spend a day with people from all over the world? You experience different perspectives, differ-ent ideas. It is very rewarding. I get very emotional when I say good-bye to my students. It is almost like a parent-child relationship. I like to think I have befriended them, helped them, protected them.”

Our vibrant international program enhances diversity, mutual understanding and respect. The Center for International Education is at the heart of what we do. Often, it is the small details that matter. Many international students come from warm climates, so the Loan Closet where they can borrow sweaters and coats — many items still have price tags on them — is essential.

So are our local residents who serve as host families, and Carla says there never are enough.

“Students crave interaction with Americans. We always need more host families. That doesn’t mean a student lives with you; it means they visit with you, talk with you. It helps them polish their English skills, it helps them experience our culture, and it gives them some extra confidence.”

A volunteer Emergency Response Team, made up primarily of retirees, helps students navigate what can be very complicated matters, such as buying a car, health insurance or legal issues. Through the Mother Care program, an American woman “adopts” a pregnant international student and mentors her.

“This is a time of uncertainty for the student,” Carla says. “She isn’t surrounded by her mom, her sisters, her support network.”

Many international students believe it is important to earn degrees from a variety of institutions, so they will head to larger universities, often in larger cities. What they find is far different from their SIU experience.

“What we hear from students who leave is that they don’t ever make the same connections they made here,” Carla says. “Some have felt so lost they decided to return to SIU. It happens all the time. They don’t have the same support network that we offer.”

That is a real tribute to everyone who contributes to the success of our international students.

RITA CHENG is chancellor of SIU Carbondale. Her weekly column appears in Southern Plus.

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