'We cannot live in a vacuum.'

As a former international student himself, Rodolfo Altamirano says he understands the anxieties foreign students face when coming to study in the United States. But Altamirano also knows the world is a very different place today than it was when he left the Philippines, 23 years ago, to pursue a doctorate at Michigan State University.

“In the early 1980s, when I came here, there were some concerns that are similar to today—adjusting to a new culture, adjusting to a new educational system, the language, the whole gamut of cultural differences,” says Altamirano. “Those remain constant. However, after 9/11, things have changed dramatically.”

From the strain of security checks to the worry of not knowing if they’ll be able to return to the U.S. once they leave, Penn’s international students have concerns today that previous generations of foreign students simply didn’t.

These students get the support they need, however, from Altamirano, who four months ago took over as director of International Student and Scholar Services here at Penn. The office helps students and scholars stay in compliance with immigration laws and regulations, sponsors programs about everything from U.S. culture to academic support and also helps Penn’s academic departments attract and integrate foreign scholars.

“It’s like I’m traveling every day when I go to work,” says Altamirano, who comes to Penn from the University of Michigan and goes simply by “Rudie.” “If you just sit back and listen, you can learn a lot from these people.”

Q. What attracted you to Penn?
A. I think I was attracted to Penn because it’s really poised to go to another level for the international agenda. I thought it was very important for me to be a part of that discussion. I came from the University of Michigan. Michigan, like Penn, is big in international education, but when I heard leaders of [this] University were very excited to position us [for the future] I said, ‘That’s the place to be.’

Q. Why is internationalism important for a university?
A. Global education is so critical to many, many areas of the world. The global economy, politics, all these things happening, whether at a macro or micro level, it’s all very critical. Outside of dealing with immigration and politics, I would like [our office] to provide cross-cultural education and intercultural learning. If you remove that bridge and open the doors for intercultural learning, it removes barriers that are created. I think it’s important for us to understand ... there are multiple perspectives when it comes to human interactions. It’s critical for us to know the world and for the world to know us. We cannot live in a vacuum.

Q. What exactly does your office do?
A. Our office is the first and last place international students and scholars go. When they arrive, they go through our office. We facilitate their entry into Penn and the larger community. Of course, with the changes in homeland security, we provide services in the areas of immigration and … international faculty employment. At the same time, it’s not just immigration, it’s also about providing cross-cultural support, faculty integration and [helping] internationals integrate into American society. From when they arrive until they leave, our office is the one place they can go for all of those services.

Q. Why do international students come to Penn?
A. They come here because of the reputation, and the image, of the University. They come here for many reasons: Because of the schools and the reputation of those schools. They come for the faculty, the professors, the people that are here. A fourth reason would be the alumni linkages, because they’ve heard from an alum that it is a great place to be. The fifth one is… a family legacy. And the U.S. is still the haven for international education.

Q. How difficult can things be for international students today, in the post 9/11 era?
A. There’s more scrutiny when it comes to our international population. They feel there are more restrictions, and they feel they have to be very concerned about maintaining their immigration status. If they go home, they wonder if they’ll be able to come back. Before making that move or flying back to visit their family, they have to think very carefully, is this worth it?

Q. How do they handle this?
A. It’s very draining. They feel it is profiling. It’s tough for a lot of people. It’s nerve wracking, too, because they don’t know what to do.

Q. These students and scholars endure a lot to be here. What do they bring to the campus community?
A. When you bring diversity to campus, it adds richness. The classrooms are becoming intercultural. If you have a classroom composed of different people from different countries, and faculty teaching classes from a different perspective, it adds a lot of richness, like you’re adding spice to a soup. You can hear a Brazilian student talking about the Amazon rain forest in Brazil, and you don’t have to go to Brazil. You’re hearing it from the person. You can hear French or Germans talking about their European perspective. You can hear Japanese or Koreans talking about [their culture]. It’s right here. It’s within our grasp. We have to make sure to grab the opportunity and seize the moment to talk to people from these cultures.

Originally published November 16, 2006.

Rodolfo Altamirano