Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Global views from campus

Global Students

Pictured from left, Nefeli Batistatou, Rodney Rugamba, Kexin Zhen, Tom Fenu, Yaohang Fan, Lucia Verdejo, Tamaki Nagai and Caroline Kennedy (all Class of 2019)

The Global Leadership Development Group (GLD), a student organization, is shedding light on international issues for the benefit of the larger Wheaton community.

Each year, under the advisement of President Dennis M. Hanno and dedicated faculty, a new GLD class is formed. This past academic year students hailed from Bahrain, China, France, Greece, India, Somalia, South Africa, Swaziland, Switzerland, Turkey and the U.S.

“The GLD’s goal is raising awareness of global issues, and sensitizing the community so they take action,” said Nefeli Batistatou ’19, a biochemistry major from Greece.

The group engages the rising number of international students attending Wheaton, said Gail Sahar, professor of psychology and advisor to the group. “Bringing international students to campus isn’t enough; you must help the general population understand their issues. Also, it helps international students to see our commitment to global issues.”

The first GLD cohort of sophomores completed its capstone project in February: a panel discussion that brought three refugees to campus.

This project followed monthly meetings at the Presidents’ House, which the students began attending as freshmen. “We collectively agreed that the refugee crisis was the most pressing issue,” said Tom Fenu ’19, an international relations major from France.

Refugees Mary Truong (Vietnam), Rasha (Iraq) and Abdi (Somalia) all spoke at the February panel that attracted more than 100 people to Hindle Auditorium.

Truong discussed hardships she faced as a 14-year-old leaving everything behind to travel to the U.S. by boat. Rasha talked about the I-94, a form that allowed her legal passage into the U.S., after spending years drifting from country to country—from her home country of Iraq, and then Syria, where the civil war forced her to move again to Lebanon. Abdi discussed acclimating to life in Massachusetts, and clearing up friends’ misconceptions about Muslims.

Assistant Professor of Political Science Aubrey Westfall, a refugee migration expert, advised the students. In October 2016, they all met with Truong—now director of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants—to learn more about refugee resettlement.

When the GLD decided to host a panel, Truong identified refugees willing to participate. Students coordinated all aspects of the event—from finding a venue to publicity.

“The students pretty much took this on. We left it to them to coordinate and put the pieces together,” Westfall said.

Hearing the refugees’ stories was impactful, Batistatou said. “The fact that they probably will never return to their home countries made me emotional. As an international student, there are times I miss my home country, but I know I can go back. I imagine it’s hard knowing that you cannot return to the country of your childhood.”

Fenu added: “The near-death experiences of the panelists, and how stoic they seemed when telling us those stories, moved and surprised me.”

As the GLD students move onto their junior year this fall, some will study abroad while others will mentor the next GLD group. The leadership skills they have developed will carry on.

“I have considerably increased my capacity to work as part of a group, to dare and be creative, and to be thoughtful,” Fenu said.