Aug. 22, 2007 -- Imagine being 18 years old and traveling to a foreign country for the first time to attend college. Your long flight finally arrives at the international airport. You’ve already been traveling for 24 hours, you’re exhausted, no one is there to greet you, everything you need is packed in a couple of heavy suitcases, the campus is still two hours away, and the kicker: the last bus of the day has already departed.
That was the reality a student from Singapore faced last August upon arriving at Dulles International Airport on her way to enroll at the University of Virginia. She ended up spending the night in the bus terminal before she finally made her way to Charlottesville.
For years, Gordon Kirtland, a 1977 U.Va. graduate who is president of the UVaClub of Singapore, and his wife, ChewMee, heard stories about international students who found "different and expensive ways" to get to Grounds after arriving at Dulles. When they heard their countrywoman’s story about the missed bus, they decided it was time to do something.
Thus was born "U.Va. Express." When incoming students cleared Customs at Dulles this Tuesday — the day before first-year orientation for international students — smiling alumni and staff greeters wearing orange T-shirts met them at the baggage claim. They were given welcome bags with food and water and a map of the Grounds. Best of all, they and their belongings were loaded on chartered buses and ferried to their doorsteps at the University — free of charge.
In all, nearly 100 students and three-dozen parents from 26 countries on five continents took advantage of the new service, the culmination of the Kirtlands’ generosity and several months of coordination among several branches of the University.
“First impressions are everything,” Gordon Kirtland wrote via e-mail from Singapore. “By having new international students greeted at the airport immediately upon arrival, we are demonstrating the University’s sense of community, and that new international students are important to that community.”
Students arriving on Grounds on the first of seven buses from Dulles were grateful, if a bit sleepy. “It was perfect,” said Daria Aleksandrova, a Russian living in Cypress who had never before been to the United States. “Otherwise, I don’t know what I would have been doing.”
Chi Chi Chola, from Zambia, agreed. “It was so much easier than having to book tickets to fly to Charlottesville, or something else,” she said.
International students are becoming an increasing presence on Grounds. Of the 3,277 students entering U.Va. this fall, 174 are defined as “nonresident aliens” while 297 are citizens of foreign countries. They are part of the most diverse entering class in school history, of which 33.5 percent are minorities or international students.
The U.Va. Express is only the first of many ways the international students are welcomed. The International Studies Office, which sends a “Welcome to U.Va.” packet to students who accept admissions offers, also arranges to match them with local host families and student mentors. U.Va. President John T. Casteen III will host a welcome dinner at Carr’s Hill on Sept. 10.
The task of organizing the U.Va. Express bus service fell to Kate Malay, assistant director of regional engagement at U.Va. Working with senior assistant dean of admission Parke Muth, she e-mailed the incoming international students to offer the bus rides. She also passed along the information to UVaClubs worldwide to share with students at the sending-off parties that many of the alumni clubs host.
Meanwhile, she arranged for University Housing to open the dorms a night earlier and to keep their office open late into the night to provide keys for the students. The University Police agreed to step up patrols to offer the students additional security. A half-dozen other University offices had a hand in the planning.
The efforts were worth it, said Sarah Brown, another assistant director of regional engagement who rode back to Grounds with the first busload. “I think it was a definite relief to see the Virginia T-shirts and balloons waiting for them, some welcoming faces,” she said. “Everyone who arrived at the airport has been very energetic and ready to get here on Grounds.
“I really think that parents and students appreciated having the ability to go through Customs and let us take care of everything after that.”
Though no funding has yet been arranged for next year, Malay said she hopes to be able to expand the service to fetch students from Charlottesville’s airport, bus terminal and train station.