Setting Out the Welcome Mat

One aspect of the recent grisly murder of a Virginia Tech University coed reminded me of the difficulties that international students face in pursuing their education in the United States. The victim, Xin Yang, had just started her first semester in Blacksburg, VA, and reportedly had reached out to establish relationships with others from several on-campus groups:

She went to social events with international students, got in touch with the campus center that works to help them adjust and appeared to be making friends as she settled into her accounting program, those who had met her said.

But one of the friendships may have led to her death: Police say she was decapitated with a kitchen knife while having coffee with a Chinese doctoral student in a campus cafe Wednesday night.

It appeared Yang had met her accused attacker, 25-year-old Haiyang Zhu of Ningbo, China, only recently, said Kim Beisecker, the director of Cranwell International Center, which works with international students. Zhu, a doctoral student in agricultural and applied economics, had been assisting her in adjusting to life at Tech, something the 500 Chinese students often do for new members in their community, she said.

They both attended functions for international students, she said.
In addition, the suspect was listed on the victim’s emergency contact list, and authorities are investigating whether they first met on campus or had known each other in the past.

In late 2007, my friend and inspiring woman, Danette (Royland) Velez, died much too early at age 36 from cancer. She left behind a husband and five young children. I had not spoken with her in years, but in the past, her quiet confidence and radiant smile were always a welcome sight.

As a father, she had all of the qualities that a dad would want in a daughter—-humble, intelligent, wise, hard-working, caring, charitable, confident, and a strong Believer. One time, I remember seeing her wearing a white shirt, and a shower of light on her naturally very blond hair gave her almost an angelic presence. When I told her about it, she told me to stop with the nonsense, blushed, and changed the subject.

During her illness and after her death, her younger sister began publishing some of the entries from her journal. A gifted writer, she would have made a fantastic blogger.

One of her entries was specifically relevant as I thought about how one person could make a difference in the lives of others—-specifically those new to a country and who have few if any social connections. This is from Danette’s journal in a posting entitled “Travel the World” (dated October 1, 2008):

I don’t know much of other cultures firsthand. I am a white American, with European ancestry. My western, Caucasian perspective is limited, but I have always desired to travel the world, knowing that experiencing how others live, would help me live my own life to the fullest.

In college I joined a group called 50/50. In it, an American student was paired with an international student, with the intent that each share their world with the other. Each year I was introduced to a new friend, and I then spent the next 9 months widening my perspective.

I got to go to Chinese New Year celebrations with students from all over Asia. I sat and drank tea the traditional Chinese way, with one ounce tea glasses, and a small teapot, amazed to find my tea cup full as the head male (a fellow student from Taiwan) kept our tea warm and filled. I watched the news of Desert Storm with a crowd of students from Thailand, Singapore, Turkey, and Iran. The memories are among my best when I think back to college days. I got to travel the world without ever leaving Oklahoma…
A club that matched local students with new international students to help them get acclimated? What a fantastic idea in that it offered a "welcome mat" to this special-needs population. As Danette described, I am sure all of the participants learned quite a bit about each other. I regret that I was not smart enough to participate in offering a welcoming and helping hand to someone else in need.

I wonder what I can do today to support similar efforts involving international students at our local college?