Connecting Students from All Over the Globe

Navigating the pandemic inspired Chris Thomas to establish a community where students from all over the globe could feel helped and heard.

We’ve tried to be innovative in how we connect with students by providing them with virtual engagement opportunities like happy hours, a conversation partners program and student council.

Chris Thomas

Continuum College’s International & English Language Programs (IELP) boast a diverse array of programs to help students from all over the world improve their English skills, intercultural skills and academic knowledge to prepare for further studies or career pursuits. IELP serves as a nimble, innovative partner to nearly 60 universities across the globe and other UW departments, like the Jackson School of International Studies.

Typically, students come to Seattle and immerse themselves in the culture for a few weeks to nine months or more. This year, IELP added online courses in several areas, including Academic English, which will continue to provide robust remote education after students have returned to campus. Whether online or in-person, IELP students are supported by staff like Chris Thomas, IELP director of student services and international enrollment.

For your average American, 2020 has been tremendously difficult and trying. For UW IELP international students — most of them in their late teens or early 20s — 2020 has meant navigating an already complicated system from a foreign country thrown into chaos.

“The day that the executive order blocking flights to and from China was issued, there were at least 10 of our Chinese students in our office,” said Chris Thomas, director of student services and international enrollment for IELP. “They were absolutely frantic trying to figure out whether they should go home — or if they even could go home.”

The IELP team fell into a new daily routine: researching travel restrictions, visa requirements and health protocols for students from more than two dozen countries.

“There wasn’t one source of information that explained everything,” Chris said. “We had to compile all that information into digestible nuggets that we could send to our students and our partners overseas on a daily basis for nearly a month.”

Chris and his colleagues became de facto travel agents, helping students find their ways home. For those who remained in Seattle, like some Saudi Arabian students who stayed only to regret it when their government closed the border, it was vital to create a sense of community where students could feel heard and helped.

“We’ve tried to be innovative in how we connect with students by providing them with virtual engagement opportunities like happy hours, a conversation partners program and student council,” Chris said. “It’s so important to find ways to connect with each other and provide a sense of normalcy.”