When tragedy strikes abroad, it also strikes the hearts of the West Virginia University community.
“It is not a place that is far away for us,” said Michael Lastinger, associate provost of International Academic Affairs.
The WVU community works together to reach out to students who are on campus from countries facing tragedy, check in with students and faculty who are abroad and organize fundraising and other relief efforts.
“It is very emotional for us,” said Grace Atebe, assistant director of the Office of International Students and Scholars. “You realize that this is something that someone you know and care about is living through and it has to be very difficult, not just because of distance from home but not knowing what is going to happen.”
“You are really hoping for the best and hope none of the students are directly affected, but you realize that like anyone else they have a great love for their country and they are still anxious about what is going on,” she added.
When situations, such as the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti or the civil unrest in northern Africa and the Middle East, occur, WVU’s Office of International Students and Scholars reaches out to students on campus from those areas. The office lets the students know that they are aware of the situation and tells them that their “door is always open.”
The office works with students to make sure they have the resources they need to get in touch with their loved ones at home, the psychological support from WELL WVU to help sort things out and any classroom assistance.
The Office of Student Life works closely with the students, like they would with any other student going through an emergency or personal crisis.
“You try to be as supportive as you can,” Atebe said.
The University also helps organize forums and other public venues where the students of places impacted by tragedy have a place to share their views and obtain support.
“Most students just come in and say they want a forum to express their views, so the story is not misinterpreted,” Atebe said. “They want to educate the community on what is going on.”
Students on campus also work together to coordinate fundraising and other relief efforts to help victims abroad.
The International Student Organization is currently working with WVU’s Center for Civic Engagement to raise money for the victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Last year, similar efforts caused the group to raise $1,500 for relief efforts in Haiti.
“The ISO connects students from every region of the world, and because they are such a collective voice for all students they see things through a wide lens. All of the members are impacted in some way by a world event,” said Lisa DeFrank-Cole, faculty advisor for the organization.
“I also believe very strongly in the saying ‘to whom much is given, from whom much is expected.’ Any college or university student should feel compelled to give of him or herself, especially during times of tragedy,” she added.
After the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, WVU students worked with the Center for Civic Engagement to activate Dollars for Disaster fundraising efforts. A variety of events were held across campus, and community members were encouraged to send text messages to donate to various relief organizations.
Part of supporting students during times of unrest, is being on top of what is happening in the world.
The Office of International Programs gets updates from the State Department when anything changes in the world. When the situation is critical, the office immediately gets in touch with students who are studying abroad and works out a plan.
Tara George-Jones, security officer in the Office of International Programs, has a cell phone on her 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Students who are abroad or in exchange programs at WVU can call the cell phone at any time.
In addition to monitoring the State Department’s alerts, the office keeps tabs on what media outlets around the world are saying.
When a situation arises, the office contacts partnering institutions in those countries to learn more about what is happening in the area and to offer their support.
“There is a lot of assessment,” George-Jones said. “We have to look at whether it is safe to leave the students there, or if it is safer to bring them home.”
The office consults with academic, safety and health experts; and often works with the Mountaineer Parents Club get in touch with the student’s family.
“We have to consider that these students are experiencing something that is going to be an important element of their education,” Lastinger said. “If we are going to take a student from the place they are in, we do it with a great deal of consideration. Sometimes we have to do it quickly, but even if we do we do it with lots of consultation.”
If a student needs to be brought back to the U.S., the office works with the student and their family to get them back safely and at no cost to the student.
When the Office of International Programs receives an alert that tragedy has struck another country, their thoughts don’t just go to the students that are there but also to the friends that they have made through their partnerships.
“When we are talking about the people in Japan and northern Africa and the Middle East, we are talking about very dear and cherished friendships,” Lastinger said. “It is very personal and we take things that happen overseas very seriously. It is very close to us.”
By Colleen DeHart
WVU University Relations/News
CONTACT: University Relations/News
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.