When Sydney Nguyen embarked on her journey as the first Programming Assistant for University of Iowa International Student Support and Engagement, she knew it would be challenging.
Nguyen, a second-year student studying English and creative writing, began her position in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. She trained for her position virtually, and she is responsible for creating a social-media presence and programming for the department, and community for international students — a task Nguyen said she takes seriously.
While it’s difficult to do things virtually, Nguyen said she has embraced online platforms to continue connecting students.
“I was trained over the summer and I don’t mind working virtually,” she said. “I have not had the experience to work in person, so I can’t compare it, but I can see our programs reaching people.”
When COVID-19 initially hit Johnson County in spring 2020, Nguyen said many of her friends who were international students had to make decisions to leave or stay in the U.S. She said there was a lot of confusion when the pandemic began because she didn’t know if she should return home or if she should stay in the U.S.
Fortunately, Nguyen, who’s originally from Vietnam, had family in the country and was able to stay in Minnesota. She said this allowed her to continue classes more normally than other international students who returned home and dealt with different time zone issues. It also helped to be so close to the UI when she began her training online.
Regardless of having to move several times and navigate the pandemic, Nguyen has hit the ground running as the first student employee for the department, Shuhui Lin, coordinator for International Student Support and Engagement, wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan.
Lin wrote that Nguyen’s efforts to build community for international students have been integral during the pandemic. Lin said there have been some hiccups in the position because of moving online, but Nguyen has done an impeccable job with creating programming and social media content.
“I think training her online went fairly well,” Lin wrote. “Most of the training can be delivered online and, since all programs would be delivered online anyway, we could actually [go] through logistics through demonstrations … I do think that it might have taken her a little longer to feel being in the position, compared to getting trained and start[ing] working in person.”
Danielle Ramsey-Smith is a graduate student at the UI who is doing a practicum in the International Student Support and Engagement department. She meets with Nguyen every week to go over programming for International Student Support and Engagement.
She said Nguyen continues to find creative ways to create community for her fellow students and helps bring attention to the department through programming and social media.
“Sydney is an important piece of the ISSE team,” Ramsey-Smith said. “She has been working hard to put together educational, engaging and accessible programs for students … With the virtual format due to COVID-19, Sydney has had to be very creative in the types of programming she crafts and the platforms in which they are available.”
Lin wrote that Nguyen is just one of many students who have demonstrated resilience this academic year. Because International Student Support and Engagement is a newer addition to Multicultural and International Student Support and Engagement, Nguyen has helped the department grow and develop important connections with students, Lin wrote.
Fall 2020 was the first semester that the International Student Support and Engagement department had any social media presence, said Lin. The department’s Instagram account now has more than 170 followers.
Nguyen said she’s glad her work is helping other international students get connected, but she hopes more students will attend programming as she continues in her position. She said attendance at the programs has been lower because of all of the stress and difficulties international students are facing.
“We get fewer attendees compared to in-person activity,” she said. “The differences in time zones for students who are outside of the United States is also difficult … On the flip side, we are benefitting from programs being online because everyone can attend.”
Moving forward, Nguyen said she can’t wait to hold events in person and meet new international students. She said she misses connecting with students inside and out of the international student program.
Overall, Nguyen said her goal is to continue advocating for and helping international students. She said it’s important for members of the campus community to listen to international students because they have been through so much during the pandemic.
“There’s a need for us to look out for our community and I’m able to continue building that community in my position,” she said. “I hope a lot of people will be a little more active in the community. And the easiest thing is for people to hear what international students have to say and keep with us — that’s the easiest way to hear and care and support us.”