In the fall of 1896, Davidson welcomed its first recorded international student: David Yonan. Yonan was born in Urumia, Persia, to a family of Presbyterian converts. At Davidson he excelled at football along with academics and “was probably the strongest tackle in the South,” according to Heroes of the Campus by Joseph Wilson Cochran.
Yonan graduated in 1900, but died shortly thereafter while trying to save a fellow student from drowning in a river during a school-sponsored picnic. He was interred in the college cemetery, according to former Davidson archivist Jan Blodgett.
Following Yonan’s death, “there was usually one or two students every decade until the late 1950s”explained Blodgett. After that the school had about 20 international students annually, until the mid-1980s when their numbers began increasing exponentially.
Today the on-campus international student population has swelled to 176 people, nearly double the number of two decades ago.
Over fifty countries are represented by Davidson’s current international students, according to the college’s official website. The recent increase in students has brought with it a variety of new activities and voices to campus.
International students comprise roughly 8% of Davidson’s total student body. “It’s small but diverse,” stated Sara Lin ‘20, an international student from Shenzhen, China, who attended boarding school in the US before coming to Davidson.
“I wish [the international student population] was larger,” added Layan Anabtawi ‘19. “But they’re trying to have larger percentages in general.” Anabtawi is from Ramallah, Palestine, and is the current president of the Davidson International Association (DIA).
DIA is composed of both international and domestic students, and is “a club for trying to mix international with American culture,” said Cristina Taulet ‘20, a student from Madrid, Spain. Taulet serves as DIA’s Outreach Chair.
DIA is “trying to create events for all of campus,” not solely for the international community, according to Taulet. During the 2017 spring semester, she organized Commons Appreciation Day. Hosted in the Multicultural House, international students shared a meal, talked, and danced with the international staff from Commons.
“It was an exchange of international experiences at Davidson both from the students’ and workers’ perspectives,” explained Taulet. Several international students, including her and Anabtawi, prepared food from their native countries. Taulet hopes it will become an annual event, adding, “[The international staff] are a different community inside of the staff community. I think they don’t get that much attention.”
Another event initiated by DIA last year were TID Talks. “ID” standing for “International Davidson,” TID Talks were a TED Talk-like opportunity for international students to give a ten to twenty minute presentation in Hance Auditorium regarding their cultural or political experiences since coming to the U.S.
“We realized international students didn’t have a lot of platforms to share their perspectives, whether political or cultural,” explained Anabtawi, who coordinated the talks. After witnessing an encouraging level of attendance, DIA plans on hosting additional TID Talks later this semester.
Aside from DIA and other student initiatives, Davidson also runs numerous programs for international students. One of the most prominent is International Pre-Orientation. International students are allowed to start arriving the Saturday before regular orientation in August. For the next week, they can start adjusting to life at Davidson and also go through errands and programming not necessary for domestic students.
Adjusting to jet lag, getting extra time to set up their rooms, setting up cell phones and bank accounts are just a few examples, according to International Student Advisor Bea Cornett. Pre-Orientation also helps students sort out visa logistics and other paperwork.
“They get to come together as a community and really identify with people going through the same experience,” stated Cornett.
“I really enjoyed getting to know all the new international students,” added Lin, who served as a Pre-Orientation leader this August.
Pre-Orientation also offers a program addressing various aspects of U.S. and Davidson culture, including alcohol and drug use. Some international students cited the American drinking and partying as among the bigger differences between Davidson culture and that of their home countries.
Taulet says down the hill culture is “normally a very big shock for most international students. We come from countries in which the legal drinking age is very low or not regulated,” she explained.
Only twelve countries, including the US, have a minimum legal drinking age higher than eighteen years old. 61% of countries have either eighteen or nineteen as the legal drinking age, according to ProCon.org.
The US binge drinking culture is especially odd to Taulet. “I think the culture and the law here is very bad for students,” she said, noting that drinking generally occurs heavily over short periods at Davidson, whereas in Spain, it is more relaxed and carried out over the course of a long evening.
“I was definitely surprised by the party culture at Davidson,” said Lin. “For us [in China], drinking is not considered cool like it is here.” She also added, “the entire hook-up culture, while not uniquely Davidson, is uniquely [American].”
Another cultural difference is the political scene, according to Anabtawi. She commented, “[In Palestine], we’re much more political.” At Davidson, however, “you don’t really understand what people are talking about. You don’t know what they’re fighting for, what they want to change, what their goals are,” she explained, saying that action is mostly limited to social media. Last year, Anabtawi saw a political need and founded the Davidson Students in Solidarity with Palestine organization (DSSP).
Along with Pre-Orientation, another major international student program is the Host Family Friendship Program. The Host Family program is not a residential one, but rather pairs an international student with a Davidson faculty, staff, or town family. “The host family serves as a local resource and a connection to US culture that’s not necessarily Davidson related,” explained Cornett.
Cornett stressed how students often form close, long-lasting relationships with their host families. They have occasional meals, take day trips, and celebrate some holidays with their families. “Host families do a lot of things that fill the gaps in the international experience, like picking them up from the airport,” said Cornett. To be matched, international students and families fill out application form that are “really similar to the roommate matching process,” according to Cornett.
There are also two scholarship programs geared towards international students at Davidson. The Weinstein Travel Grant gives an international student up to $4,000 to explore an area of interest in US culture or geography. The grant was made possible by Marcus and Carole Weinstein whom, according to Cornett, realized that “international students were coming to Davidson and spending four years in the Davidson bubble, not really seeing the rest of the United States.”
The Meet My World Grant is the second opportunity, and it gives an international student and an American partner up to $10,000 to travel for a minimum of two weeks in the international student’s home country. The first year the grant was awarded to six pairs, and last year, to three. Students have used it to travel to countries including Palestine, Greece, and Nepal.
Fall and spring break trips are made available to international students during the school year. This past week, eighteen international students traveled to Washington, D.C., to spend several days exploring the city. “Bei.ng in the capital always feels good, and I’m doing the Davidson in Washington program so visiting D.C., helped me to know more about the city I’ll be living in next summer!” said Hani Zaitoun ‘20, who is originally from Damascus, Syria.
Over the course of the year, the school also provides international students with smaller services that might not be apparent to domestic students. These include taking trips to the nearest Social Security office in Concord, since students need Social Security numbers if they wish to work on campus. Trips to the DMV are also coordinated if a student needs a state ID or driver’s license.
“If a student really needed anything or wanted to do anything, there are lots of avenues to hold events or help them get what they need,” said Cornett. “We have the flexibility because of the size of our population to really accommodate for students the things that they need in ways I think big schools can’t.”
Started over a century ago now, the Davidson international community is continuing to grow at a steady rate. Its students’ impact can be felt all over campus in a variety of forms, and the school is continuing to find ways to help better serve them.
In Heroes of the Campus, Cochran writes that upon arriving at Davidson, David Yonan “soon developed into a typical representative of his college, taking a prominent part in athletic literary, and social activities both within and without the college walls.” As it stands today, the same can be said for many of the students 121 years later for whom Yonan opened the door.
Anyone interested in joining DIA or learning more about its upcoming programming should contact Anabtawi at firstname.lastname@example.org.