They come from more than 55 different countries, all to HPU to study and see America.
There are more than 200 of them, a number that grows every year. They come to a campus where they see their country’s flag on the Kester International Promenade, and they feel embraced by a place that feels so foreign to what they’ve ever known.
They’re not used to the friendliness, the food, the beauty or the campus-wide support. They feel safe, find friends and discover America. But moreover, they discover the true essence of the international student experience at HPU.
They find out who they are – and who they want to be – in a country they only knew from the movies.
That happens with the help of a woman some call “Mama Church.”
Dr. Marjorie Church, the director of HPU’s International Student Affairs, helps her students with everything. That includes feeling foreheads.
“Someone has to make sure they’re not sick,” she says, laughing.
She takes them to get their driver’s license or their Social Security card, and she’ll turn drives into comfortable conversations full of questions.
But moreover, she teaches them, she has them enhance cultural understanding campus-wide, and she makes sure they are intellectually equipped to get a job, go to graduate school and improve their corner of the world.
That’s natural for Church. She’s been a teacher since 1988. She’s also a married mother of three, with her three children are still in college. So, she looks out for her students like they’re her own.
Because of that, many come to her fourth-floor office in Smith Library to talk. And Church listens.
She knows these students need the support. They come to HPU with student visas, green cards and as American citizens living abroad. They’re immersed in one of the most vulnerable moments of their lives – living in a new place with often a new language getting an education far from home.
But Church sees them shed their shyness, jump into activities with the HPU’s Global Student Association and help create events like the Chinese New Year Celebration and the International Student Festival.
She connects them with departments across campus and helps them navigate everything from filling out tax forms and getting health insurance to linking them with a cultural acclimation mentor, CAM for short, to help them adapt.
Meanwhile, Church partners with HPU’s Office of Religious Life to sponsor dinners that help American students and their international counterparts understand one another over a table full of food.
With this immersion into American culture, international students say they’ve realized what they had hoped to find: They feel welcome.
“We’re preparing our students to compete in a global world, and here, we put it into actual practice,” Church says. “So, we assimilate our international students into our culture, but it’s just as important, or maybe more important, to understand what they bring to us.
“And I think it’s through this understanding of the humanity of others that we’ll have more peace in this world.”
Finding America, Finding Themselves
Jim Smith is HPU’s director of international recruitment, and he’s seen the world.
In April, he flew to South Korea, India, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam. With every stop, he hears about students’ interest in business and computer science. He also hears about HPU and the question, “Is it really that beautiful?”
For Smith, a former city manager and boarding school executive, the international students he meets are interested in HPU because of the potential opportunities they see in a country they’ve come to love.
“They know America is the place you can come to realize your dreams,” Smith says.
Jerry Zheng came from China. He will graduate in May with a degree in business administration, head back to China and find a job. He says he’s ready.
He has sharpened his job skills by going through mock interviews in a coat and tie. He also has prepared his resume and worked with advisors in HPU’s Career and Professional Development Office to get him ready for life after college.
All that work has given him confidence. That’s why he started the basketball league.
Zheng calls his team CHN CLUB. He’ll wear No. 12, and they’ll play against other Chinese students attending other universities nearby to help them connect with one another.
He did it because of Cameron Zell, his best friend at HPU. Zell is from New Jersey, and when Zheng came to campus two years ago, Zell introduced Zheng to exercise and everyone Zell knows.
Today, the two are fast friends. They exercise three times a week at HPU’s Slane Student Center. Zheng has dropped 40 pounds, he keeps it off, and he participates in what he calls “my American college life.”
“Cameron was the key,” Zheng says. “He opened the door, and I found friendly people on campus. I feel better, and my parents have noticed how much I’ve changed. I’m more outgoing, more open-minded, and now, I look back and see that this campus has changed me.”
‘This is my place’
Maja Michalska came from Poland to play basketball for HPU, and like many international students, her English wasn’t good.
But her teammates helped. They took her to movies, to their home and on vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and in the process, her English improved.
Michalska is now a senior majoring in exercise science, and like Zheng, she’ll graduate in May. She has stepped away from basketball to focus on her career, and as her time on campus winnows, she has begun to consider the love she has developed for HPU.
That love has first names and many memories. Ask her about that, and Michalska tears up.
“Here at High Point, you don’t have a huge wall between professors and students, and the people here care,” says Michalska, who will pursue a master’s degree in business at a Florida school this fall. “They become like a second family, and they make it more doable. Life, I mean. I’m making it.”
Ki Wook Lee understands.
He’s from South Korea, a 2007 HPU grad with a business administration degree. After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles because he wanted to go into banking like his father.
He began to develop his professional career at a bank that provides financial help to people mainly from the country’s largest Korean-American community.
He started as an officer trainee. After a decade at the bank, Lee was recently promoted to a first vice president and a team leader in the special assets department for the Bank of Hope.
At 37, he sees how HPU helped prepare him for his life.
He improved his English, and he became more acclimated to the American way of thinking with the help of Megan Hassall, a student mentor from Tennessee. Meanwhile, his professors were friendlier, more accommodating than he had elsewhere. He learned much.
“At High Point University, we could interact with faculty like a friend,” he says from his home in Los Angeles. “We can freely ask questions and give answers, and it’s not a top-to-bottom relationship. It’s an equal relationship, and that helped me feel free to speak.”
That helped his confidence, too. He feels that today. HPU, Lee says, gave him the direction he needed to forge what he calls his “life path.”
“My parents and my friends ask me, ‘What convinced you to move all the way across the country?’” he says. “And I tell them, ‘If you think you want to achieve something, go and grab it.’”
Home Away From Home
These stories are as familiar to Church as photos in a family scrapbook.
Her students will slip into her office, sit close to her candy bowl and tell a story or seek advice. She helps them. They also help her.
All she has to do is look at the shelf in her office. She sees the doll from Poland, the vase from Saudi Arabia and the seven fans from Japan, China and South Korea, and she’ll reach for a tissue at her desk to catch her tears.
These are all gifts from her students. They aren’t strangers to her.
She keeps in touch with many after graduation. She knows about their marriages, their post-graduate degrees, their travel and their jobs that mirror their passions — from bank executive to inventor to company co-founder.
That’s the professor in her. It’s the mother in her, too.
“I feel their foreheads and help them get jobs, but I want them to know they’re cared for and loved,” she says. “They’re more than students to me.”