Universities all over the United States and around the world have foreign exchange programs to give students the opportunity to study and travel in different countries. Universities that accept international students have programs in place to help students navigate through college life.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement states the students must be accepted by a Student and Exchange Visitors Information System approved school. After the SEVP-approved school accepts enrollment, international students receive an I-20 form. This document is very important to maintain throughout their stay.
Appalachian State University is no different. Karen Marshall, Assistant Director of International Students and Scholar Services and Outreach (ISSSO), is there to help students before they arrive and after.
“I do the immigration and visa paperwork, so I help students obtain or process the I-20 form that they need to get their visa. I organize the orientation for them and the pre-arrival process," Marshall said. "I give students the information they need and all the steps required before they come, whether it is visa-related or just, you know, preparing for university. I organize a lot of that.”
Students like Lain Ebanks have received help from Marshall regarding her I-20.
“She has helped me make sure my I-20 is up to date and sends emails to me and all of the other international students to make sure we have everything we need to complete each semester successfully,” said Ebanks.
Marshall explained that students frequently experience difficulties when getting their visas, especially during the pandemic. The U.S. Embassy was closed for months and interviews for studying abroad were and are still being postponed. This is the case despite students already receiving their acceptance letters and even purchasing plane tickets.
Armando Barradas Valencia fortunately received help from Marshall and ISSSO with his late registration due to traveling restrictions.
“I was quite scared for a while, and she [Marshall] and others saved me,” said Valencia.
After college, Marshall decided to work with international students following teaching in the Czech Republic for three years. Marshall remembers her experience traveling internationally, teaching English, meeting new people and experiencing other people’s cultures with contentment. Once she returned home, she decided to get her master’s in international education.
After a while, Marshall decided it was time for her to settle down. Between starting a family, having a mortgage to pay and working, traveling became hard to do. Working with international students gave her the satisfaction of meeting new people and seeing their diverse cultures without leaving home.
“I can’t go to the world; the world comes to me,” said Marshall. “I wasn’t exactly envisioning doing this, but after I finished grad school, I got a job in [domestic] admissions and a few international admissions. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t do international admissions 100%.”
Before working with solely with international students at Appalachia State University, Marshall worked in domestic admissions. At that point, she worked with international students only until they got to the U.S. and later passed them along to ISSSO. Now that she is part of ISSSO, she gets to talk to her students before they arrive, the moment they arrive, and until they graduate. Marshall gets the satisfaction of knowing her international students throughout their college careers and she is constantly exposed to people from all over the world.
The job requires a lot of organization for an adequate support service. Apart from helping with visas and ISSSO, Marshall helps by providing tax assistance workshops. Students can also explore some restricted employment options due to the conditions of their visas.
While she loves her job, it does come with a few challenges.
“Sometimes students will want to do something that is just not possible based on the regulations, or they’ll already have done something that wasn’t permitted by their immigration status or their visa," Marshall said. "It is always tricky.”
The desire to work off-campus is a frequent issue for international students. Marshall stated the restrictions come from the U.S. government and not the University, which makes things more challenging. Most students are allowed to work on campus, but they are more restricted when it comes to working off-campus. International Students and Scholar Services and Outreach is also lacking staff which makes this conflict more challenging.
“I feel like I've got my finger in many different pies,” Marshall joked. “It can be challenging to juggle, but that’s also something that I like about it. I’m never doing one thing, and I will never get bored in this job.”
Orientation is one event that Marshall helps with. Pre-covid, there was a three-day orientation that included going over important information such as visa rules, health services (immunizations) and social activities. In the 2020 and 2021 fall semesters, Marshall held a hybrid orientation. Essential information was given over Zoom using this format. For students, working with the same staff over the course of their college experience helps build friendships and respect.
Jakeya Nasrin, a student from the United Arab Emirates, has fond memories of working with Marshall.
“Karen is a wonderful person and she is always there for the students. She tries her best to support as much as possible," Nasrin said. "I had a very good experience with her, and she is more like a friend to me. There were times where I came and just talked to her on days when I was down, and she just listens even though it is not her job to do so”.
When students have schedule conflicts, Marshall provides them with options and alternatives.
“She is willing to make time when students need it, through zoom or in person," said Jodie Tan Qiu You. "She takes the time to brainstorm for solutions and share different possibilities.”
Marshall started as an English teacher who travelled the world in hopes of educating. Now, she has students from around the world coming to her. She helps students who leave their homes by welcoming them into hers.