Building a safe harbor thousands of miles from home

By Emily Alkire

When Grace Li, a junior from China, and Joy Chen, a junior from Taiwan, were first-year students, an upperclassman international student invited them over for dumplings and hot pot, two meals that remind Chen of home. “Getting to eat and talk about the foods we eat overseas really helped with my homesickness,” Chen says. Whenever Li or Chen asked the upperclassman what money they could contribute to the meals, she refused payment and instead asked that Li and Chen continue to provide a hospitable place for future students. Chen says, “That experience is probably one of the biggest reasons why I joined the International Apartments.”

Located in the center of Wheaton’s Crescent apartment complex, the International Apartments are a community living space occupied by eight international and domestic students. According to their page on Wheaton’s website, the mission of the International Apartments is “to provide a space for fellowship where international students can gather together, receive encouragement and build meaningful relationships across cultures and with domestic students,” and it is clear that the students currently living there are committed to that mission.

The International Apartments make up one of four student groups on campus run by the International Student Programs (ISP) office. This year, the guys’ apartment consists of Cody Wollin, Yoon Cho, Danny Du and Ryan Kim, while Grace Li, Joy Chen, Kayla Hurst and Linda Kuffour are living in the women’s apartment.

The organization is fairly new, this being only its second year in existence under the ISP. The idea originally came from alumna Simona Andreas (’18), who served as the EVP of Global Engagement on Student Government during the 2016-2017 school year.

“I’m quite proud of the International Apartments because they were petitioned for by Student Government. Getting them approved was a very student-led process,” Cody Wollin, a resident explained. “ put in so much effort to get this established as an actual physical presence and space on campus.” After the proposal passed, Jerry Woehr, director of ISP, hit the ground running on establishing and developing what would become the International Apartments.

Because the international apartments are a new addition to residence life on campus, the application process was something of a mystery to the current residents. “In all honesty, I just wanted to get a guarantee into an apartment,” Li said. “But once I got to know a little bit more about what International Apartments do and the vision of them, I really had that passion to try it out. The idea of hospitality really spoke to me, and I really wanted to extend that hospitality to other students, especially underclassmen.”

In a different vein, Hurst explained that she applied for International Apartments because it “would be an opportunity and space to know others and be known in ways that acknowledge and celebrate our cultural backgrounds and experiences.”

The ethos of the International Apartments stems from many students’ longing for a greater understanding of their international background. Almost every resident shared that they’ve struggled to fit in at Wheaton. In a predominantly American setting, it can be difficult for international students to find outlets where they feel they are welcomed and understood.

Yoon Cho, who has lived in South Korea, China and Canada, said that international students generally receive numerous questions about their cultural background, which can often be exhausting. “As international students, we’ve learned to make friends really quickly and then say goodbye to them because people move in and out of our city settings,” he said. “We didn’t grow up in the same town like a lot of Wheaton students have. Many grew up in the same suburb their entire life, so they have the same set of friends. Becoming friends with people from that kind of background was very different and difficult.”

Through the mission of International Apartments, Chen hopes to create more intercultural interaction. “When you’re in chapel and people are talking about missions overseas or racial issues — these are important things to be talked about — but I feel like that can also widen the gap between international and domestic students,” she said. “Here at the International Apartments, you’re just getting to know these people as people.”

Although the International Apartments are a safe space for international students, student residents also strive to welcome domestic students. Woehr is making it his goal to have at least one domestic student living in the International Apartments each year. The reason is simple: domestic students have just as much of a right to a hospitable living environment as do international students. Ryan Kim, a senior from the Bay area, hopes to be a bridge between international and domestic students.

Danny Du, a senior from Shanghai, also emphasized the importance of domestic students being involved with the International Apartments. “The International Apartments can be a place where truthful conversations and learning about different cultures happens,” he said. “International interactions are one of the indispensable experiences you should get from college. Otherwise you won’t get it easily after you graduate. Because of this, the International Apartments are an opportunity that American students should capitalize on.”

The International Apartments residents said that their weekly Open Nights are an ideal chance for domestic and international students to interact with one another and bridge the gap between the two communities. If you happen to stop by the International Apartments on an Open Night, you might find Kim wearing sunglasses as he cuts up onions for guacamole. Or you might stumble upon a mochi-making party led by Li and Chen. Some of these candid moments are shared by Wollin on the @internationalapartments Instagram page. “I still think Ryan cutting up onions is our most-liked photo,” Cho says.

Chen adds that she had the most fun during their mochi-making party watching the joy radiate from the face of senior Christian Kim. “Christian fell in love with mochi-making,” Chen says. “He wasn’t good at it, but he loved it, which made the whole experience really funny.”

Li says that one of her favorite moments from this year was when Cho’s birthday fell on an Open Night. “We had a crazy time in the apartments. We sang and played weird music and ASMR. It was really fun and crazy.”

The student residents want their apartments to serve as a place for conversation, fun and relaxation for students. Kim says that he often feels the pressure from Wheaton’s culture of constant productivity. “Open Nights, where we can sit around without necessarily being ‘productive,’ have been a way for me to push back on that idea and realize that I can be literally doing nothing beyond hanging out in my apartment and still be spending my time well.”

However, it has been difficult for the International Apartments to make sure students outside their immediate friend group feel welcome to come to Open Nights. “So far we’ve invited a lot of our friends, but this semester we want to be more strategic with who we invite. Not necessarily just our friends, but also people from different clubs. We want to try to really reach out to the international freshman students,” Cho says. Chen agrees, saying, “I don’t want the apartments to be just a space for me and my friends. I want this to be a place of hospitality for anyone who is looking.”

Most of the students also emphasize how the Open Nights have less attendance in the winter due to the apartments’ distance from central campus. “Our Open Night showing toward the beginning of the semester when it was still lighter in the evenings and not as cold was pretty decent,” Wollin says. “Now that it’s darker and colder, it’s harder to attend.” Wollin also thinks safety concerns might be a factor in the limited attendance. “I legitimately think something deterring people from coming to open nights has been the sexual assault incident in the Mich-Cres tunnel,” he says.

Kim, Li and Chen are all part of Koinonia, and each of them lead a Family Group this year. They use their apartments to host their Family Groups for weekly gatherings. In addition, Wollin, an Ambassador for the Center for Vocation and Career (CVC), dedicated one of his Open Nights for CVC drop-in hours where students could come and have someone look over their resumés and cover letters. Residents of the International Apartments also open up their space for organizations like Ladder, Discipleship Ministries (DM) and 1-2-1 mentoring events. Kim and Cho, who serve on 1-2-1 and DM cabinet respectively, use their apartment for cabinet meetings and lunches.

Cho says it is important for international students to be in leadership positions on-campus. “Being in leadership as an international student will definitely be different than being in leadership as a domestic student,” he says. “Through the mission of International Apartments, we want to empower international students to serve in leadership positions, not just in ISP, but in other cabinets on campus. We want to shape the Wheaton community and color it with international backgrounds.”

Although the International Apartments residents are all involved in different leadership positions on campus, many feel like the International Apartments themselves are not well publicized. When asked whether he thought people knew about the apartments, Li says, “Probably not. I feel like we still need to reach out more to other people. We’ve been trying through Instagram but I still don’t think people know what International Apartments are. Even if people have heard of us, they don’t really know what we do and the purpose of us existing on campus.” Looking ahead, the International Apartments are hoping to use their space more strategically this semester. Instead of just reaching out to their friend groups, the residents hope to engage more with underclassmen. Du wants to incorporate more Chinese culture into the International Apartments, Li and Chen hope to have more people over for meals and Chois planning to host driver’s license information night where international students can come over, eat snacks and practice permit tests together.

Du explained the idea that the International Apartments are there to be a safe space for students. “The International Apartments are made to empower international students to accomplish whatever they want to accomplish. We are the resources. We are the safe harbor for whoever needs comfort.” Wollin describes his confidence for the future of the apartments perfectly: “We really want our apartments to be a space not just for international students, but for all students at Wheaton. We’re proud of Wheaton for taking this tangible step to increase collaboration between international and domestic students, and we’re excited about what’s in store for international apartments this next semester and beyond.”

Linda Kuffour, a senior from Ghana, says her favorite part about living in the apartments has been her roommates. “I didn’t know any of them before and God has just made the perfect match. I love my roommates. I like to call the apartments home because they feel like home.”

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