Once in a while, amidst the southern drawls and North Eastern accents of most of CofC students, you hear a foreign language. International students are far and few on campus, making up less than 1 percent of the student body. To understand this small population of internationals, I went straight to the source: the Assistant Director for International Students, Melissa Ochal. New to the program, Ochal’s first response to this reoccurring criticism was, “It’s about quality, not quantity.”
I had heard from my two international friends that there was a new and improved coordinator for foreign students at the College. Surprisingly young, Ochal has worked at Brandeis University, Ohio Dominican and Ohio State before coming to CofC. She has been working with international students since graduate school and since then has had a passion for familiarizing America with the rest of the world. She started at CofC last March after her predecessor retired. She described the transition as pleasantly smooth and her coworkers as more than welcoming. Clearly happy to be here, Melissa explains her decision to make the move from Ohio to South Carolina as wanting, “to be a part of a university that had a bigger international commitment than where [she] was before.” Considering that she was the only employee in the study abroad and exchange office at her previous university, CofC was a definite upgrade.
Acting as more than just a coordinator, Ochal wants to make sure international students have opportunities to get to know the city of Charleston and each other, and describes herself as a “problem solver.” From the information I heard about the last assistant director, Melissa has in many ways revolutionized the program. Like she pointed out, a new person often gives a new perspective, and her masters in student affairs is part of the reason she is doing different things. Building on existing programs, bringing back old ones and creating new ones is her main focus. Old traditions include the annual harbor cruise, the start of the semester ice cream social, and the Thanksgiving dinner. Melissa is looking to bring back the International club — a way for American students to connect with foreigners.
Most impressive is her extremely successful and new cougar ambassador program, as well as other group events. Cougar ambassadors are CofC students who welcome and mentor internationals through their time in Charleston. On top of being a great welcoming platform, the ambassadors are an “extra layer of personal connection” between local students and foreign students. Ochal has also worked hard to make sure events and trips are planned on a regular basis so that the students are getting as much out of their study abroad experience as possible. Ghost tours, plantation trips, football games, and farmers markets are just a few of those events Ochal plans.
Ochal’s vision for the program is not to increase the size of the foreign student body, but to increase the quality of their experience here at the College. She says, “My goal is for the international students to feel as welcomed and at home as they could be away from home.” when I asked her plans to grow the percentage of internationals, Ochal responded that a “smaller population of students is sometimes better because they can stick together while they integrate.” Ochal’s desire to merge international students and American students comes from a long time opinion hat foreign students are a “gray way to bring other cultures and perspective to the College and exposing Americans to other cultures.” With someone like Melissa Ochal on staff, the College of Charleston is certain to foster and create a more open minded and diverse community of people. Ochal recited her favorite quote for me by Mark Twain, summing up everything she hopes the College will stand for by the time she is done here: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of your people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
*The views in this article represent the opinion of the author, and not those of CisternYard News.