Penn State welcomes new international students with special orientation event

Nathan Rufo
September 09, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In mid-August, Penn State welcomed more than 1,200 new international students to the University. They join nearly 10,000 international students already studying at Penn State campuses around the commonwealth. One of the top destination schools for international students, the University has placed in the top 10 every year for the past decade, according to the Institute of International Education’s "Open Doors" report.

“International students play a vital role in creating a global culture at Penn State,” said Rob Crane, interim vice provost for Global Programs. The interplay between international cultures, local cultures and Penn State’s own culture was the theme throughout International Student Orientation (ISO), a special orientation for international students to help them get acclimated to their new situations.

“Every student experiences culture shock,” said Mel White, associate director of global operations and learning in Global Programs. “With the international students, it’s just a little more obvious.”

President Eric Barron speaking behind a podium

Penn State President Eric Barron delivers welcome remarks to students and parents at the President's Welcome Reception, during International Student Orientation for fall 2019.

IMAGE: Catherine Malizia

ISO offered a variety of activities to help students feel welcome. After a day of checking in, students and families were invited to attend the Presidential Welcome Reception held on Old Main Lawn. Now in its 4th year, the event brought together 1000+ students, parents and families to hear welcoming remarks from Crane and Penn State President Eric Barron; to meet representatives from their colleges; and to enjoy local food, like grilled stickies.

“Thousands of students apply to Penn State,” said Barron during his speech. “That you have made it here is already a great achievement.”

At the event, Barron spoke to the students about the academic excellence at Penn State; the University's commitment to global engagement; and the potential that a Penn State degree affords. The Presidential Welcome Reception marked the official kickoff of ISO for undergraduate students, which ran in waves from Saturday to Wednesday.

“Students are thrown into a new academic system and a new culture all at once,” said Richard Spicer, student engagement coordinator in Global Programs. “Orientation is an important part of helping them acclimate.”

Dr. Robert Crane, interim Vice Provost for Global Programs, converses with students on Old Main Lawn

Robert Crane, interim vice provost for Global Programs, converses with students on the Old Main lawn, at Penn State's University Park campus.

IMAGE: Catherine Malizia

The students, meanwhile, attended sessions to learn about various issues such as culture shock, visa regulations, campus resources, ways to get involved, and information on the American academic system. One of these sessions, titled "Penn State: A Whole New World," aimed to give students some background on the culture of central Pennsylvania and how it might differ from their own experience.

“We definitely have specific goals in mind for all of the sessions,” said White, who ran the "A Whole New World" presentation. "We're constantly trying to find ways to make this more useful and applicable for them."

While students attended sessions to learn about various issues they would and could face, they also had the opportunity to teach other students through the Revue. The Revue challenges teams of international students to come up with a skit to educate others about a particular issue. For example, one of the prompts is: “An international student is traveling, but forgot to get a travel signature on their I-20. What will happen to them? How can they rectify this situation? What should they have done?”

Mel White gives a presentation on cultural differences to international students

Mel White, associate director of global operations and learning in Global Programs, gives a presentation on cultural differences to international students.

IMAGE: Catherine Malizia

The students expressed their messages in creative ways, tackling issues from government regulations, to problems with roommates, to homesickness. At the end of the final Revue, which marked the official end of ISO, the students all sang the University's Alma Mater together, an ISO tradition.

“That [singing the Alma Mater] was the best part,” said Maggie Zhang, a senior and one of the ISO student coordinators. “Words can’t express how much pride I feel when carrying on the spirit to new Penn Staters.”

Dr. Robert Crane, Vice Provost for Global Programs, speaks to new international students

Robert Crane, vice provost for Global Programs, speaks to new international students at the International Student Orientation held at the beginning of the fall 2019 semester.

IMAGE: Catherine Malizia

Many international students came to orientation with parents or other family members; while the students attended orientation, these family members had orientation of their own. The third annual International Parent Orientation took place in the HUB on Saturday and featured speakers from Campus Safety, University Health Services, and the immigration advising office. Nearly 300 people attended these sessions.

“Since we created the parent orientation, it’s been one of our most popular events,” said Elizabeth Brady, one of the planners of the event. “The interest keeps skyrocketing. Parents want to know how Penn State is going to help their student succeed and we know that the parents are a key component to that success. I think our day together is invaluable.”

An ISO orientation leader assists a parent on a computer

Parent Orientation offers parents the opportunity to learn more about what resources Penn State has for their students.

IMAGE: Catherine Malizia

Hosting international students is an integral aspect of Penn State’s global strategy. These students bring high academic achievement and diverse perspectives to Penn State’s campuses. ISO helps these students to adjust and have the knowledge and tools they need to succeed at Penn State.

Education Abroad and international partnerships, under the umbrella of the Global Engagement Network, make up the other pillars. Global Engagement is one of the six foundations of Penn State’s Strategic Plan.

After ISO is over, Global Programs continues to provide support and programming to students.

“We are focused on the success of our students at Penn State,” Crane said during his speech at the reception. “This means all students.”

Two international students converse while sitting on Old Main Lawn

Two international students converse while sitting on the Old Main lawn, at Penn State's University Park campus.

IMAGE: Catherine Malizia

The staff of Global Programs hopes that international students feel more at home after orientation.

“It’s not just about visa documents,” said Zhang. “We truly believe ISO is about the process of getting involved in a brand-new life, and the first impressions of the school.”

“It’s the process of going from — three days prior — living in your home country, to — by the end of orientation — you are now a part of the Penn State family, and more importantly you feel like you’re a part of it,” added White. “It’s really rewarding to watch.”

A large tent on Old Main Lawn

The President's Welcome Reception, now in its 4th year, is part of International Student Orientation at Penn State and draws more than 1000 students and their families each year.

IMAGE: Catherine Malizia

For more information on International Student Orientation, contact Richard Spicer at

For additional perspective on ISO, a recent story by Penn State journalism alumnus Bill Horlacher appeared on

Last Updated September 03, 2020