Center Director Jennifer Little Talks About Supporting International Students at JMU

JMU campus

Jennifer Little has worked at the JMU International Study Center (ISC) for five years and is a graduate of James Madison University. As the ISC Center Director, she welcomes international students to JMU and helps them develop their skills as they prepare for their undergraduate studies here. We asked Jennifer a few questions to learn more about her and her work at the ISC.

As the Center Director, what does your role entail?

My role is divided into three parts: making sure we have a healthy and well-supported relationship with the university, making sure my staff is working well and has everything they need, and caring for students in whatever way is needed. The latter is my favorite part, as I love getting to know my students and supporting them throughout their educational journey. I know how hard it can be to be away from family, especially in an entirely new culture, and I tend to provide some of that “mom” energy where I can. Over the years many students have become part of my extended family, and we stay in touch even after their time at JMU is over.

How does JMU welcome international students to campus?

International students arrive to campus during a dedicated international student orientation that covers everything they could possibly need to know about JMU. This is also a time when we do a lot of activities to start getting students connecting and building a diverse network of people they can depend on. Once classes start, students are sometimes in dedicated ISC classes and sometimes in classes with all students at JMU, so they get to know lots of students in a variety of contexts.

JMU is a very friendly campus with a student body that is curious about different perspectives and excited about deep engagement. This is great for international students because they will be surrounded by people who want to learn about them and where they come from and what they think about different issues. I am always amazed at how quickly and easily students form relationships across campus, and can usually count friends from all over the world.

How does the ISC support international students in their academic journey?

The ISC has the benefit of small classes and really dedicated support and attention, so if a student is struggling in a class their professor is often the first person looking for opportunities to help. Our Student Success Manager oversees the overall progress and helps students learn study strategies. She will help students create their own personal academic success plans and meets regularly to help students progress in their classes.

We work closely with several offices on JMU’s campus to have dedicated tutors for our students, especially in Multilingual Student Services, which is an office on campus dedicated to assisting students for whom English is not the first language. We connect students to Learning Centers (Math, Science, Writing, & Communications), tutoring, the Learning Strategies Center, and Disability Services as needed to make sure students are staying on track toward their academic goals.

What emotional and social support does the ISC provide?

We understand that each student has things going on in their lives that can make cultural adjustment, studies, and relationships difficult at any time, and we genuinely want students to know that they can come talk to us about any of those struggles. All members of our staff have been trained to recognize signs of distress in students, and several have received Mental Health First Aid certification. We have worked closely with Counseling Center to ensure our students have a comfortable experience there, and we also incorporate wellness into some of our classes and programming. Over the years I have had students in my office dealing with everything from bad relationships to mental health issues, from concerns about grades to loneliness, and many other emergencies. My goal is always to help the students understand that they are not alone, that we are here with them and will help them through it, and then to get them connected to whatever is needed – whether that is counseling services or emergency travel arrangements.

Many times, students are facing issues related to homesickness or a lack of familiarity with cultural norms here, so we coordinate activities to help with cultural adjustment with the Center for Global Engagement and connect students with clubs and organizations to help them build friendships and a feeling of belonging. JMU is also known as one of the kindest and friendliest campuses in the USA, so that makes our job in the ISC pretty easy.

What is your favorite JMU tradition?

That is a tough one! I do love the JMU chant because it is a short and simple thing that bonds everyone together. There is also nothing better than seeing a wave of purple and gold streamers flying through the air at football games! 

JMU emphasizes that everyone is part of “Being the Change.” What does this mean for you? How do you see international students embracing the JMU spirit?

“Being the Change” to me means actively participating in the world around you to make a tangible difference. It means that students don’t just come to JMU to learn, but to take what they learn and find meaningful ways to turn that knowledge into action. You will never find a JMU student just going to classes and back to the dorm. They are very active on campus, in the community, in clubs and organizations – they look for opportunities to build their future career along every step of their journey.

I absolutely see international students fully embracing that key piece of JMU’s spirit. We’ve had students create support groups, form new organizations, volunteer throughout the community and throughout the world, participate in hands-on studies, and work on large-scale multi-national projects. I’ve seen some studying abroad, others starting their own companies – there does not seem to be a limit to amazing things our international students accomplish.

Can you give any examples of how international students transform from the time they arrive at JMU to their progression from the ISC?

Definitely! More than I can count. There are two recent examples I can think of. One student joined us and didn’t really seem to want to be here at first. He was very focused on his social life and wasn’t very interested in his studies; his grades fell very quickly. After an especially rough semester he was placed on an academic success plan and really seemed to re-focus and gain more confidence. By the time he had finished in the ISC, he was really a great student and a leader to many of the new students that were joining us. He had matured so much and had a great attitude toward his schoolwork and his future – it was a huge turnaround, and we were all so proud of him.

Another student joined us with a very different situation – she was very shy and it was difficult to get her to say more than a few words for the first several months she was with us. She did well on assignments, but really struggled to participate in classes. One of her professors connected her with Multilingual Student Services and made time to work with her on her speaking skills. When I attended her final presentation in the ISC, she was very confidently speaking with a room full of people, including some very prestigious members of the university administration, about her plans for the future and all she had accomplished so far. It was hard to believe she was the same student, and it was really great to see her grow and develop in her time with us.

Jennifer and the ISC staff members are committed to delivering a quality, supportive experience for international students at JMU’s International Study Center. Contact us to start your own JMU experience.