Kearney is a ‘home away from home’ for Lopers
By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – When an international student arrives in Kearney for the first time, someone is there to greet them. It doesn’t matter what time of day.
“We don’t say welcome to UNK. We say welcome home, because that’s how we want them to feel,” said Ryo Suzuki, an international recruitment specialist with UNK Global. “This will be their home away from home, and that’s the first thing we want to emphasize. We want them to know this is a safe, welcoming place.”
About 300 international students from more than 60 countries are currently studying at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, whether they’re learning English through the English Language Institute on campus, pursuing a four-year degree or spending a semester or two here as an exchange student.
The faculty and staff with UNK Global, formerly known as the Office of International Education, treat them all like family.
“Everybody in this office has lived abroad, so we have personal experience with how isolating it can be,” Suzuki said. “We know exactly how they feel, because we’ve been there. That’s why it’s important to develop that support system.”
Originally from Tokyo, Japan, Suzuki came to UNK sight unseen in May 2012, taking a leap of faith that he’s never regretted. He was involved in UNK Student Government, intramurals and Chancellor’s Ambassadors as an undergraduate and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a management emphasis in 2016 and Master of Business Administration in 2019.
Suzuki worked for the University of Nebraska Foundation and UNK Alumni Association before returning to campus, where he’s one of 11 employees who support international students through UNK Global.
Now led by Doug Biggs, a UNK history professor and interim assistant vice chancellor for international affairs, the office makes sure students start building connections right away.
“We work really hard to create that community for our students, not only on campus but also within the city of Kearney,” Biggs said.
Before classes even begin, students are already participating in local experiences that allow them to develop relationships while learning more about Nebraska and American culture. They may attend the county fair, visit local restaurants, kayak down the Kearney Canal or get together for game nights and barbecues.
Once the school year starts, the focus shifts to events that bring international and domestic students together. There’s an ice cream social every fall, followed by Blue and Gold Welcome Week activities and opportunities to attend Loper athletic events.
The annual Japanese Festival, Korean Festival and International Food and Cultural Festival all draw large crowds, giving students an opportunity to showcase their cultures and cuisines, and the Global Student Association hosts events such as the Cultural Fashion Show and Holi Festival of Colors each year.
UNK Global also partners with other offices on campus to encourage engagement between international students and their fellow campus and community members. For instance, the weekly Conversation Tables, a collaboration with UNK Modern Languages, allow students to practice their English skills in a group setting. They also teach their native languages to participants.
“In my opinion, it’s incredibly important that we have students from other countries come to Kearney because it enriches us culturally and opens our eyes to the rest of the world,” Biggs said. “You learn that these students are just like us. There’s no us and them. There’s just us. And that makes a huge difference.”
To bolster the university’s international recruitment efforts, UNK Global launched a new event last summer for middle and high schoolers from Japan.
Ten students and two chaperones from Kyushu Gakuin Lutheran School were part of the inaugural Future Global Leader Camp. Hosted in late July and early August, the 10-day camp gave participants a chance to experience UNK and life in Nebraska before they have to make a college decision.
Suzuki called it a “campus visit on steroids.”
“Most of the time, international students don’t get the opportunity to visit a university if they want to study in the United States,” he said. “They have one shot to make the right choice, based on information from a website or talking to recruiters.”
During the Future Global Leader Camp, students were able to stay on the UNK campus, tour buildings, take a class, meet faculty and staff and participate in those cultural experiences. They visited a farm, picked and ate sweetcorn, went kayaking, attended a barbecue and learned about local government at City Hall, among other activities.
UNK Global plans to host the camp every summer, establishing a pathway between participating schools and UNK.
“For some of these kids, it was their first time being outside of Japan,” Suzuki said. “We want them to know that it’s easier than you think to study in the United States.”
Suzuki and Biggs also want domestic students to know that international education is a two-way street.
UNK offers dozens of opportunities for Lopers to study abroad, with programs ranging from a couple weeks to a full year. Students can participate in an international experience in almost any country.
“If a student wants to go somewhere, we will find a way to get them there,” Suzuki said.
In addition to the exchange agreements UNK has with institutions across the globe, there are numerous faculty-led group trips to countries such as the Czech Republic, Italy, Costa Rica, Spain, Greece and Argentina. Other opportunities are available through specific courses, such as a business management and marketing trip to Ireland or an international law class that took students to Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic and Netherlands.
Students can study abroad during the semester or take advantage of the January and summer breaks. With proper planning, most course credits transfer directly to UNK, ensuring participants remain on their preferred path to graduation. Financial assistance is available, too.
“There are a lot of scholarship opportunities to study abroad, and financial aid applies to most programs,” Suzuki said.
Although study abroad participation declined after the COVID-19 pandemic, Biggs and Suzuki both believe those numbers will continue to rebound. They encourage interested students to meet with UNK Global employees early in their academic careers so they can work together to develop a plan and potentially connect them with an international student from the country where they want to study.
“We’re here for everybody,” Suzuki said. “And we want to emphasize that. We’re the one-stop shop for any international experience students want to have.”
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