by Kim Primicerio
Sacred Heart has seen more and more international students in classrooms over the past few years, thanks in large part to the welcoming, sensitive natures and overseas experiences of the people who work in the Office of International Admissions.
The team’s main purpose is to attract students from across the globe to the first-rate educational programs at Sacred Heart; yet, it also strives to help international students feel at home and get accustomed to living in the new environment here.
Throughout the years, students have come to the office for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from guidance on getting through a course, to a friendly shoulder when handling a family death. Cori Nevers, executive director of international admissions, said the team sees what the students go through and does what it can to help.
While SHU has welcomed international students since its inception, it created the Office of International Admissions in 2012 to focus on that aspect of the campus population. The result: In fiscal year 2013, SHU had 56 international graduate students enrolled; now that number is 378. This year alone, SHU enrolled international undergraduate and graduate students from 15 countries, and the office staff means to see this number grow.
Nevers, who has worked at SHU for the past 17 years, describes her team as energetic and goal-driven.
The four of them also have empathy. “We all have experience in similar situations,” Nevers said, recalling a time she was in Istanbul with a cell phone that didn’t work and a ride that was two hours late.
Keith Gallinelli, one of three directors of international admissions, spent nine years in China and another four years in Seoul, Korea, after leaving his job as a geologist in Boston. Last year, he returned to his home state and joined the Office of International Admissions.
While abroad, Gallinelli held various education jobs—high school science teacher, vice-principal and director of students. Even though he taught in English, he said if he didn’t learn Chinese, he “wouldn’t have been able to survive,” so he knows that assimilating to a new culture is not easy.
“Students get off the plane and make their way here either by taxi or Uber,” Gallinelli said of international students arriving at SHU for orientation. “They’re hungry, they’re tired and they might not have a place to stay. There’s a lot of hand-holding.”
Suzanne Cordatos, another director of international admissions, said that even if students from other countries have some knowledge of English, they still experience culture shock when they arrive in the U.S., because they’re engulfed in a foreign language and culture.
Cordatos taught English in Japan for a year after leaving a job as an admissions counselor at a small college in West Virginia. Since then, she said, she has enjoyed connecting with international students, hearing their stories and helping them achieve their education goals.
When students arrive at SHU and meet the international admissions director they’ve been emailing constantly for several months, suddenly their three-day journey to reach SHU is worthwhile, explained Cordatos, who helps ensure students have everything in order, from transcripts, to visas, test scores and interviews.
Cordatos finds her work at SHU fulfilling. “I love people,” she said. “I love to travel and impact the lives of families. It’s about opening doors.”
The third and newest director of international admissions, Francesca De Riso, knows exactly how an overwhelmed international student feels, because she was one. Born and raised in Milan, Italy, she spent a year at the University of Connecticut, working on her master’s thesis. De Riso moved to Connecticut in 2015. She speaks Italian, English and German, and she has traveled the world, studying in Italy and abroad.
De Riso said she and the other directors have found that many international students already are in the U.S., enrolled in high schools, prep schools and boarding schools. She hopes to encourage these young students to attend SHU.
With her love for connecting and meeting people from different backgrounds, De Riso said, “This type of environment is a great fit for me.”
It’s all about relationships, life experiences
Gallinelli said people often think his job is glamorous, and that he and the other directors spend most of their time traveling the world in first class, but it’s not like that. Cordatos said they only go abroad a week or two each year; most of their work is on campus, interacting, helping and advising the new students.
“Travel really is a small piece,” Cordatos said. “We spend most of our time relationship-building and following up with students.”
Nevers said her favorite day of the year is commencement, because she gets to see the students who came to SHU as scared freshmen or intimidated graduate students and watch them confidently walk across the stage to receive their diplomas.
The team members agree they aren’t the only ones who help students reach the finish line. Staff in Student Life, the Office of Immigration and Support Services, and others have important roles too.
Nevers related that she recently encountered an international student, Melvina, who came to the University about six years ago from Sweden. Melvina started in SHU’s English language learner program and worked her way though a successful undergraduate experience, both academically and as a member of SHU’s swim team. She also worked in the Office of International Admissions, helping with recruitment efforts.
“We hugged for so long,” said Nevers, who was surprised to see Melvina on campus and to learn that she is studying engineering as a graduate student in Denmark.
Nevers also recalled the effect a backpacking trip across Europe years ago had on her life and said every interaction with an international student is similar to that, because she learns and grows. “It’s all about life experiences,” she said. “I’m changed by every student I meet.”
The team is interested in learning not only from the international students, but also from faculty and staff who might have connections and experiences globally. They have an open invitation for people in the SHU community to come to their office and share what they’ve experienced abroad.
“We want to know what our faculty is doing overseas, and if they know anyone overseas,” Cordatos said. “We want to hear about any global connections.”