The volunteers of UVaExpress warmly embraced incoming international students Monday and Tuesday as they arrived at Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International Airport to begin their studies at the University of Virginia.
Volunteers greeted and helped more than 210 students from 18 different countries at Dulles and transported them to Alumni Hall. There, they were fed and more volunteers helped them move in and settle in. In all, more than 100 people volunteer to make the program a success.
In its fifth year, UVaExpress – the only program of its kind in the state of Virginia – was launched at the behest of Gordon Kirtland, former president of UVaClub Singapore and an alumnus of both the College of Arts & Sciences and the Darden School of Business. He wanted to address the difficulties of transportation for incoming international students. The program is sponsored by UVaFamilies, part of the Office of Engagement.
The arriving students were grateful for the help.
"Without UVaExpress I would have no idea how to get from Washington, D.C., to Charlottesville," said Liren Fei, a third-year Chinese exchange student from the National University of Singapore. He said he felt welcomed as soon as he met the enthusiastic volunteers.
Julie Abbott-Haynes, a first-time volunteer, said that it felt great being able to work with the international students, who looked jet-lagged and travel-weary when they first arrived.
For these students, UVaExpress is more than just a two-hour bus ride to Grounds. It also offers a chance for them bond with their classmates and ask questions about things they are unfamiliar with.
Yanzi "Shelly" Wu, a first-year College of Arts & Sciences student from China, learned about UVaExpress online and deemed it a "welcoming party."
"After a long and exhausting flight across several time zones, they made it feel like home for us. We got to know other Chinese students and we got to bond already at the airport," Wu said.
During the bus ride down, she was able ask a fourth-year student questions about life in the United States, she said. "We asked a lot of questions, like 'How did you feel when you were a first-year student?'" she said. The ride left her feeling mentally prepared for the upcoming year, she added.
Eunwon "Ashley" Sung, a South Korean student transferring from Northwest Missouri State University, was especially looking forward to learning more about and watching U.Va.'s tennis team in her upcoming year.
UVaExpress teams with other U.Va. organizations to provide services that make adjusting to life in the U.S. go more smoothly.
The Mainland Student Network, the largest on-Grounds organization that reaches out to international Chinese students, participated with UVaExpress by helping the students open bank accounts and set up phone services.
Frank Wang, a third-year student in the McIntire School of Commerce and a member of the Mainland Student Network, volunteered at Alumni Hall. "Every student in the Chinese culture has been helped by UVaExpress and so we just wanted try to feed back to them," he said. "We wanted to help the students set up bank accounts and AT&T accounts. We're just trying to help."
He benefitted from UVaExpress when he first arrived on Grounds. Many of the volunteers choose to participate in this program for the very same reason.
George Wu, a fourth-year student in the Commerce school, has volunteered with UVaExpress every year since his arrival on Grounds. This year he served as a bus captain. For him, participating with UVaExpress entails more than just greeting and meeting the students once.
"I give them my contact information. Orientation leaders only stay with the students during orientation, and though they have RAs, international students sometimes have problems that RAs might not understand, such as making friends with Americans," he said.
For Wu, mentoring the students he meets on UVaExpress means providing help both socially and academically. He willingly explains to them the application procedure for transferring into the Commerce School – which students do at the end of their second years – and his experiences in the Commerce School as an international Chinese student.
With volunteers providing food, hauling luggage to residence halls, offering tours of Grounds and the local community, and hosting an international welcome dinner, UVaExpress not only seeks to make the students feel at ease and cared for when they first arrive, but to support them during their transition into school.
Christine Meng, a volunteer and a fourth-year student in the College, said, "I remember how overwhelming everything was during my first two weeks in Charlottesville, but I also remember how just one random person remembering my name was a total godsend. I definitely want to welcome and encourage new students as much as I can, even just as a familiar face on the walk to class."