International Student Success Spotlight: Omotola Ashafa

Western Illinois University international graduate student Omotola Ashafa’s interest in public health first began when she served in Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps.

Omotola Ashafa at Hueco Tanks State Park in El Paso, TX

Omotola Ashafa, an international graduate student studying public health at Western Illinois University, recently traveled with the WIU Campus Students for Christ group to Hueco Tanks State Park in El Paso, TX (pictured in the background) on their way to a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico.

“I was deployed to a rural area in Southwest Nigeria. This opened my eyes to how prevention medicine could, and will, greatly benefit a rural community,” she said.

Currently a graduate student in Western’s public health M.S. program (situated in the health sciences and social work department), Omotola hopes to get a job (after she completes her master’s degree) in health program intervention or as a wellness program coordinator.

“My ultimate goal is to become a community health director and health program coordinator in rural communities in my country,” Omotola noted.

Omotola recently took time out of her busy graduate-student schedule and answered a few questions about herself, her time here at Western, and a recent mission trip she took with WIU’s Campus Students for Christ group to Juarez, Mexico.

Q. How did you learn about Western Illinois University? Why did you decide to apply to and attend Western?

Omotola: During the time I was in college for my bachelor’s degree, I knew I was going to pursue my graduate degree right after finishing my undergraduate degree. What I didn’t know then was where—until my mum brought up the idea of going to study in United States, and it kind of stuck with me. She mentioned to me that I should meet with her friend who is familiar with schools in U.S. I met with him, and he told me about WIU and two other universities. I applied to all three schools, but I was particularly taken by the swift response I got from Western. The international admission officer was very helpful and answered my questions no matter how silly I felt they were. Then I found out about the Nigerians and other international students on campus… all this just made my “pros” list for WIU even longer.

Omotola and WIU student members of Campus Students for Christ

Omotola and WIU student members of Campus Students for Christ

Q. How did you adjust to your new home as someone who had never traveled to/in the U.S. before?

Omotola: I had not been outside of my country until I came to the U.S. Even though I already speak English (because English is our official language in Nigeria), people had a difficult time understanding me because of my accent. In my head, all I wanted to do was shout at them and say, “If only you will be patient, then you will understand that we are speaking the same language.”

I must acknowledge that international student orientation was a great help with my adjusting to the new environment and meeting people. The volunteers and staff were great, and it was at this time I met another student from Nigeria, and he really helped me understand the way things work around campus and other things he knew that I was unfamiliar with. I must say that most people I met recently after I got here where very helpful and nice and this made settling in easier for me.

I did experience some culture shock, like riding in the bus and hearing curse words being used, but nothing really major, and making friends really did help me adjust.

Q. What are your favorite courses and why? Who or are your favorite instructors and why?

Omotola: My favorite courses are my emergency management classes, epidemiology and health behavior theory. Emergency management has always been fascinating to me, mostly because it involves a lot of hands-on experiences; I even took certificate courses in Nigeria. It was fun to use theories to understand human behavior in my health behavior theory class and try to develop models to alter unhealthy behavior. I am familiar with infectious disease because of where I am from, but this made understanding epidemiology a little bit easier.

WIU Campus Students for Christ preparing to help build a house on a mission trip the group took to Juarez, Mexico, in January.

WIU Campus Students for Christ preparing to help build a house on a mission trip the group took to Juarez, Mexico, in January.

Two professors I adore are Dr. Wen and Dr. Johnson. Dr. Wen because she readily offers to help in every step of the way, breaks confusing complex things to simple teachings for you to understand, and she is also full encouragement until you get it right. Dr. Johnson, because at first he makes it seem hard and forces you to push your limit, which I really like. They have been both very helpful.

Q. Tell me about the mission trip you recently took to Mexico: what organization did you travel with? Why did you want to take part in this trip? What kind of work/mission did you do while you were there?

Omotola: The Nigerian student I met during orientation week introduced me to a campus ministry at WIU called Campus Students for Christ (CSC), which is a student organization. This organization has been really good to me, and the members have been a major part of my adjustment to WIU. I currently live in the CSC house.

Omotola Ashafa in Juarez, Mexico

Omotola helping to build a house on a recent WIU Campus Students for Christ mission trip to Juarez, Mexico.

This student organization, CSC, takes a group of student to Juarez, Mexico, every year to build a house for a family who cannot afford one. I showed up to an interest meeting for the trip in 2014, because I thought will be a great opportunity and a memorable experience, but I did not go because I could not afford the trip. I also thought crossing the border could be a challenge, because I am international student.

I did not make it to the interest meeting for the 2015 trip because of a conflicting meeting, and I thought the trip was going to be at a time when I was to start work for graduate assistantship duties.

It was until I was talking to Barry Reed, the director of the Campus Ministry, and also the staff leading the group to Mexico. He told me the trip will be from Jan 3-10, and I resumed work Jan 11, so it worked out fine. He also told me that there was full funding for a student if he/she is interested. This was a donation from a family member that knows about CSC. This was very exciting news for me to get this opportunity and I did not have plans for the break anyway.

WIU Campus Students for Christ in Juarez, Mexico, January 2015

Members of WIU’s Campus Students for Christ group pose in front of the house they built on a recent trip to Juarez, Mexico.

The trip was fun, exhausting, and awesome at the same time. We visited Hueco Tanks State Park in El Paso, TX, before we crossed into Mexico. We were in Mexico for four days, and we built a house and gave some donations we had taken with us to the family. We started with a flat ground surface, and by the time we were done on the third day, there was a house standing.

We did all the work: we cleared the ground for foundation, built the walls and roof, insulated them, put them up, put in the dry wall, put in electric wire and appliances, before it actually started to come together and looked like a house. I remember looking at the house and was so proud of myself to have been a part of that. We presented the keys for the house to the family and prayed with them and we also gave them some donations. It was AWE-INSPIRING!

WIU Ski Trip on Lincoln’s Birthday Doubles in Size

Kickstart (Ski+Jump)

Ski-Snowstar

A collaborative project between Western Illinois University’s Campus Recreation Outdoor Pursuits program and International Studies program offered 130 members of the campus community a ski trip during Lincoln’s birthday Thursday, Feb. 12.

A combination of 128 WIU students, staff and family members traveled to Ski Snowstar Winter Sports Park in Andalusia, IL, by bus.

According to Pat McGrath, the assistant director of Aquatics and Outdoor Pursuits at Western, the trip included a mix of first-time and experiences skiers.

“Despite the daily high temperature of 16 degrees, everyone had a great time on the slopes and warming up in the lodge,” said McGrath. “We plan to continue growing the trip next year, potentially adding the opportunity for participants to snow tube, as well as ski and snowboard.”

The trip’s $30 registration fee included transportation, ski rental, a lift ticket, a one-hour ski lesson and a voucher for pizza and a drink. Students also had the chance to sample new products from Kickstart and Ubr Water, provided by Pepsi.

The number of participants in this year’s trip doubled last year’s Lincoln birthday event, which had 62 participants.

For more information about the annual trip, contact Campus Recreation at (309) 298-1228.

Kowal: Leathernecks Help Leathernecks

Connie Kowal at WIU Feb. 9, 2015

Conrad “Connie” Kowal—who graduated with his bachelor’s degree from Western in 1974 and, that same year, played on Western’s baseball team, which was one of the most successful baseball teams in WIU history–spoke to students in a few management and marketing classes Monday, Feb. 9.

Last Monday, Western Illinois University students were able to meet—and learn from—one of Western’s many accomplished legacies.

Conrad “Connie” Kowal, who was named one of Western’s “Distinguished Alumni” in 1992, traveled back to his alma mater to attend the third annual Western Illinois Baseball Lead Off Dinner Sunday, Feb. 8.

Although he’s a busy sports marketing executive—Connie is currently the director of the Libertyville Sports Complex & Recreation Department (he also served as a sports executive with the Chicago Cubs for 14 years, 1985-98, and was the senior director of marketing and business development/business chief of staff for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints from 2003-05)—Connie stayed over in Macomb through Monday in order to share his 30+ years of experience in the sports marketing/management industry with many soon-to-be fellow Leatherneck alumni.

WIU Management and Marketing Assistant Professor Cathy Onion “booked” Connie—who graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1974 and, that same year, played on Western’s baseball team, which was one of the most successful baseball teams in WIU history—to speak to students taking courses in business communications, management principles, direct marketing management, marketing management, and recreation sport principles, as well as to members of the Marketing Club and Sport Management Association student organizations.

While many Western students didn’t get to meet Connie last week, Professor Onion shared some nuggets of Connie’s wisdom (and stories about his career and WIU experiences) below.

WIU Alumnus '74 Connie Kowal

WIU Alum (’74) Connie Kowal

Q). Why do you feel it’s important to invite successful alumni back to talk with students?

Prof. Onion: It’s one thing to hear tips and advice from your advisers and professors, but when an alum speaks to students, he/she lends credibility to what a professor is saying. In my experience, the alumni who return to campus to speak typically share three traits:

  1. They love the institution and value the education they earned at WIU.
  2. They want to offer advice and expertise in their markets (areas of work or study).
  3. They want to help students. As Connie says, “Leathernecks Help Leathernecks.”

Q). What was his presentation about?

Onion: He talked about his experience with the Cubs and his good friend Ernie Banks. He also discussed his work with the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints in 2003, 2004, as well as in 2005—the Hurricane Katrina year.

WIU alumnus Connie Kowal's presentation to WIU students Feb. 9, 2015.

WIU alumnus Connie Kowal’s presentation to WIU students Feb. 9, 2015.

In April of 2005 (draft day), he established the marketing theme “Ya Gotta Have Faith.” As he shared his experiences with WIU students, he noted: “Little did we know that just a few months later, when Katrina hit New Orleans August 29, our marketing campaign would have two meanings.”

He continued:

“We evacuated New Orleans and moved our operation to the San Antonio’s Alamodome. Our operation was set up in the basement of the Alamodome with piping and drapes. We were a glorified trade show. We put in 23-hour days, and I grew a beard because I simply did not have time to shave. We were managing our jobs, but we were also managing lives of players and personnel. Everything they had was eight hours away. The NFL season—which was only two weeks away—was not going to wait on us. We had to do whatever it took to be ready. We had guys (players) practicing in parking lots and just anywhere they could find a space. When we won that opening game September 11 by three points (23-20) against the Carolina Panthers, there was not a dry eye in the locker room—not one. It was the most emotional win I’ve ever experienced. I’ll never forget it.”

When a student asked Connie: “Can you tell us a story of compassion shown after Hurricane Katrina?” He replied:

“All of America reached out to us. Everyone. Everywhere. Whatever they could do to help, they did.”

Below are some of his Connie “isms” he shared, too:

  • Mind your ABCs — Be Accessible, Be Reliable, Be Credible
  • Be the #1 fan of your own fan club
  • Work hard, do your job, work hard, do your job, work hard, do your job. Grinders win in life!
  • If I can do it, you can do it. I’m not that good. I just out-hustled people
  • Sports is a perishable product. If you don’t sell the seat today, you can’t resell it tomorrow—game over. Do your job.
  • The smallest task can lead to the biggest accomplishment.
  • Business is a contact sport. Learn to talk to people. I’ve never hired thumbs. I hire people.
  • Never pretend to be someone you are not.
  • This is not a one-and-done relationship. You have my contact information. If I can help you in anyway, please get in touch with me and remember: Leathernecks Help Leathernecks!

Q). Anything else you want to highlight about Connie’s presentations to students?

Onion: Just one of the stories he shared… His freshman year, Connie tried out for the WIU baseball team. He was cut.

“I didn’t blame the coach or say I got a bad deal. I worked at it and came back the next year,” he explained.

He watched every WIU baseball game from the stands and played in a summer league. The next year, he went back to the tryouts and introduced himself to Coach Pawlow again. He made the team. He was a utility player—until his senior year. Then the coach put him in as a back up at third base, and he went 4 for 4 at the plate. He never came out of the lineup again.

“I’m 5’5, my name is Connie for goodness sake, I have an overbite, and I’ve lost my hair,” he told students. “I had a lot of things to overcome, but I did it.”

The 1974 team he played on was one game away from the College World Series, when they lost in the bottom of the 11th inning, 0-1, due to a walk off.

Title IX Campaign Begins at Western Illinois University

Title IX Campaign Begins at Western Illinois University

By Mary Friday

University Relations Intern

Over the next few months, Western Illinois Universty’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Access in conjunction with University Relations, are working to educate the University community about Title IX.

In early February, Karen Trusley and I began working with faculty, staff, administrators, and student athletes on the WIU Title IX campaign. We met with individuals to talk about what Title IX means to them and take their photos for the campaign.

Andrea Henderson, director of EOA and Title IX coordinator at WIU, was one of the 10 individuals I interviewed. Henderson, who received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at WIU, explains what Title IX is, why it is important, and how to file a Title IX complaint.

Andrea Henderson, WIU Title IX Coordinator

Q. What is Title IX?

A. Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 is landmark legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally-funded program or activity. Most people think of athletics when they hear Title IX, but Title IX not only prohibits sex discrimination in athletics, it also prohibits sex discrimination in admissions, student services, academic programs, housing, employment, etc, basically any program or activity that the University offers. In addition, sexual harassment, which includes sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX.

Q. Why is it important for the campus community to be familiar with Title IX?

A. It’s important for the campus community to be familiar with Title IX because we each have rights and responsibilities under the law. Understanding those rights and responsibilities will help to ensure that we create and maintain a safe environment that is responsive to the needs of our campus community. Members of the campus community who experience sex discrimination have the right to an internal investigation of their complaint; employees who learn of sex discrimination have a responsibility to report it to the Title IX coordinator. If sex discrimination is determined to have occurred, the University has a responsibility to stop the discrimination, prevent its recurrence and address its effects.

Q. What rights do students, faculty and staff have according to Title IX?

A. Students, faculty and staff have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sex. Those who experience sex discrimination, including sexual harassment/violence, have the right to an internal investigation of their complaint using the preponderance of the evidence standard; they also have the right to interim protective steps, notification of the investigatory outcome, the right to file an appeal and protections from retaliation.

Q. What does Title IX mean to you, personally?

A. Opportunity, equity and accountability. Opportunity to participate in any program or activity that the University offers without fear of discrimination based on sex – equity in the resources provided for my participation and protection – and accountability for those responsible for helping to ensure compliance with the law and for those who violate it.

Q. If someone has a Title IX complaint, how do they file such a complaint?

A. An individual who wants to file a Title IX complaint can complete an online Sexual Misconduct Investigation Request form or come to, call, or email the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access. An investigator will then work with the complainant to get the written details of their complaint to include the who, what, when, where and witnesses. Once the information is gathered the investigator will review, and, if Title IX is implicated, will begin the investigation. It’s also important to note that a Title IX complaint can be filed in addition to a criminal complaint.

For more information about Title IX visit the Office of Equal Opportunities and Access website at wiu.edu/equal_opportunity_and_access/

Meet One Tough (and Fun) Mudder: Tim Hallinan

If you were among the record-number of participants—509, who raised more than $20,000 for the Fallen Soldiers Scholarship Fund (October 2014)—in Western Illinois University’s third annual Fallen Soldiers 5k Run/Walk, you probably saw the guy in the gas mask. If you weren’t able to be there that beautiful autumn day at WIU, you may have come across the photo on the event’s Facebook page. Or, maybe,  you’re seeing this photo for the first time.

Tim Hallinan particpating in the third annual Fallen Soldiers 5k at Western Illinois University October 2014

But no matter how you encountered it, after you have looked at it, one thought and/or question likely comes to mind: “Is this guy crazy?”

Crazy like a fox.

Underneath that MOPP (mission oriented protective posture) gear is Army National Guard Veteran Tim Hallinan, the director of annual giving at Western. Tim, who competes in obstacle course races for fun, knows the value of “creating a ruckus” to draw attention to a cause. Last year, when the WIU community was furiously participating in the NCAA’s “6th Fan” contest for $100K in scholarship funds, Tim spearheaded voting marathons/parties to help Western’s cause. Alas, we didn’t win… but the event—and Tim’s efforts to unite the campus through voting events—served as a rallying force for Fighting Leathernecks everywhere.

This month, as the inaugural installment of the Council of Administrative Personnel (COAP) Employee Spotlight, we focus on Tim, one of Western’s many dedicated and talented COAP employees. He was gracious enough to be the first victim… ahem, subject… and answered a few questions about himself (the man who is also behind the chucklesome, “Things overheard at the Hallinan house“).

Q. Tell me a bit about your background… How did you wind up working at WIU?

I graduated from Western in 1995 with a B.A. in sociology and began working as an advocate for people with disabilities in Macomb. In that position, I had the opportunity to network with the local school district, as well as many social service and non-profit organizations in the area. In 2000, I was approached to head up the new Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter, and I jumped at the chance to help build a new agency from the ground up. I gained a lot of experience with grants and fundraising in my eight years in this position. When the opportunity arose to come back to Western to raise funds for students in my alma mater, I saw it as a way to come “full circle” and was fortunate to have been selected as Director of Annual Giving.

Q. What does a typical day at work at Western look like for you?

My hours are a bit unconventional, as they mirror that of our Phonathon operations—mostly evenings and Sundays. I spend a lot of time collaborating with students and departments in preparing our direct mail outreach, designing solicitations, tracking our progress and researching trends and emerging technology in the area of annual giving that can benefit our university.

Tim Hallinan, WIU '95 and the director of annual giving in Western's Foundation and Development Office, earned "Trifecta" status in 2013 in the Spartan Race series.

Tim Hallinan, WIU ’95 and the director of annual giving in Western’s Foundation and Development Office, earned “Trifecta” status in 2013 in the Spartan Race series.

Q. What are some of the best aspects of your job? What are some of the most challenging aspects?

First and foremost, about 75 percent of the work I do is in cooperation with our students. Regardless if they are callers for our Phonathon or sharing their Western experiences in annual fund letters, I’m honored to be able to facilitate that connection between our students and alumni, and I feel rewarded in having the flexibility to showcase the impact of our donors’ collective giving on our students and our university. Alumni participation rates are declining industry-wide, and each year it is a challenge for me and others in the field to keep the need for alumni support in the forefront.

Q. What do you like to do in your time away from work?
In addition to as much “family time” as I can do with my wife, Jeri, and our three boys, I have served on several non-profit boards including – Western Illinois Service Coordination (WISC) and Big Brothers Big Sisters – for many years. This year, I have also begun serving on the board for our local Roller Derby team – The Macomb Bombshells. I admire this team for their hard work and dedication to themselves, the sport and our community, as well as their philanthropic efforts in donating their proceeds to local charities. But aside from my work and family, OCR (Obstacle Course Racing) is my passion.

Q. Tell me a little about your fitness activities (as I know you compete in those crazy obstacle course races), e.g., how and why did you get into this area of fitness? What is the next race you plan to compete in?

I served for 20 years in the Illinois National Guard, and I retired shortly before working for Western. In the military, even part time, there is the excitement, travel opportunities and challenges that appeal to me. I find that in OCR, as well as in fitness, benefits training for and competing in races. I have found it is a unique way to not only challenge myself, but also raise donations to fund a new scholarship at Western.

Impact and emotion certainly have a place in philanthropy, but I feel that adding an element of uniqueness or sensationalizing a philanthropic endeavor, to a degree, can also be beneficial and make it exciting. I can run a 5K and am grateful for a few that will sponsor me, but if I run a 5K in a gas mask or holding a Western flag, I find people are more inclined to be a part of the effort – especially if they have no other connection to our university. The underlying message is basically, “If I can do ‘this’ for a cause, you can help with a modest donation.”
This year, both my wife and I will be running a Tough Mudder, a Spartan Race, two Warrior Dashes and a marathon in hopes of securing a place in the OCR World Championships in Ohio this October.

Q. What is your favorite quote?

“Doubt kills more dreams that failure ever has.”

International Student Success Spotlight: Amin Akhtar

Amin Akhtar, WIU Alumnus

Amin Akhtar recently graduated from Western with his M.S. in computer science. While an international student at WIU, he served as a graduate assistant in Western’s Center for International Studies.

Many current and former international students at Western Illinois University may be familiar with Amin Akhtar’s friendly smile. Akhtar—who is from Iran and was, until last December, an international student himself—served as a graduate assistant in Western’s Center for International Studies while studying in Western’s School of Computer Sciences.

“In that role, I participated in six orientations for new international students. Each of them was an amazing experience. Helping other international students each semester was more than a job or a volunteer work for me,” he explained. “I would like to especially thank to Ms. Dana Vizdal [assistant director in the Center for International Studies], who gave me this chance to be a leader for the orientations.”

Akhtar finished his master’s of science degree in computer science in December. Recently, he shared with me a bit about some of his academic experiences and opportunities he had while he was a WIU student.

Q: How did you learn about Western Illinois University? Why did you decide to apply to and attend Western?

Amin: After considering different universities, I came across information about the School of Computer Sciences at Western. When I saw the profile of the professors and their fields of interest, I was sure I wanted to choose Western.

Q: What do you hope to do with your degree?

Amin: I am planning to work as a software engineer in one of the consulting companies. Finding a job in the computer science field is not that hard, especially when you have a computer science degree from WIU!!!

Q: How did you adjust to your new home as someone who had never traveled to the U.S. before?

Amin: The adjusting process from another culture to the U.S. culture was not that easy. All international students have culture shock when they come here, and I was not an exception. Making friends and not being alone was the best way for me to adjust myself within the new environment.

Q: Who was your favorite instructor and/or course and why?

Amin: My favorite professor and advisor was undoubtedly Dr. Martin Maskarinec [professor of computer science]. Dr. Maskarinec was so patient and helpful all the time, and I always used his advice. My favorite courses were my database courses, because I love working with data.

Q: Tell me about one or two of your most memorable experiences as a Western student.

Amin: The best moment of my life was when I got the news about being accepted as a teaching assistant in the School of Computer Sciences. Other memorable experiences include meeting my girlfriend at Western Illinois University and learning more about American culture.

Int’l Student Success Spotlight: Xitong “Rebecca” Chen

Xitong "Rebecca" Chen Portrait of WIU President Jack Thomas

Dr. Rick Carter, executive director of Western Illinois University’s School of Distance Learning, International Studies and Outreach, Xitong “Rebecca” Chen, WIU President Jack Thomas, and Jenny Knavel, art professor. Rebecca designed and created the portrait she is holding with Dr. Thomas. It took her 57 hours to complete.

A few years ago, two of Western Illinois University’s leaders made a huge impression on Xitong “Rebecca” Chen when she met them in her native country, China. In fact, according to Rebecca, meeting Western President Dr. Jack Thomas and Dr. Richard Carter (executive director of WIU’s School of Distance Learning, International Studies and Outreach) provided the tipping point in the process of her decision about where to go to college in the United States.

This Fall 2014 semester, Rebecca, a sophomore with a double major in art and journalism, expressed just how much the initial impression that Dr. Thomas made on her with an impression of her own. For a project assigned in one of her art/design classes (taught by WIU Art Professor Jenny Knavel), Rebecca spent 57 hours working on a portrait of Dr. Thomas (see photo below). She presented the work to the President late last week.

So, for the December (and second) installment of Western’s “International Student Success Spotlight” series, I asked Rebecca to answer a few questions about her experiences with WIU. She shared a little bit about the first time she met President Thomas and Dr. Carter, as well as a bit about some of her experiences at Western and in North America so far.

Q. How did you learn about Western Illinois University and why did you decide to apply to and attend Western?

Xitong (Rebecca): As I grew up in Shanghai, which is the largest city in China, as well as the global financial center, I learned more and more about foreign countries and had an increasing interest in studying abroad. When I had almost finished my high school studies, I heard about Western Illinois University from one of my mom’s friends. When I began the application process to apply to Western, I found that WIU has an English as second language program called the “WESL Institute” [Western English as a Second Language Institute], with a low cost. I thought it would be a good program for me to improve my English and prepare for college life in the U.S.

Although I thought Western was definitely a good choice for my college study, I was still struggling with the decision about where I should go, since I received several offers from other good universities in the U.K., Canada, Australia and in other countries.

Xitong "Rebecca" Chen and WIU President Jack Thomas in China

This photo documents the first time Xitong “Rebecca” Chen (far right) met WIU President Jack Thomas (second from left) in China.

I had this struggle until I met President Jack Thomas and Dr. Rick Carter in Shanghai when they traveled to China. After talking to them, I unhesitatingly decided WIU would be my university in the coming four years, because it had two nice leaders who cared about their students in their university with their full hearts.

Q. What do you hope to do with your degrees in journalism and art once you graduate?

Xitong (Rebecca): I want to be a missionary and work in the Middle East in the future. I joined Campus Students for Christ (CSC) at WIU, and received help from several of the American students there. Just like the help I received, I also want to offer my help to others who need it. I hope through my studies in journalism and art, I can use my writing, my words, my actions, and my artwork as a missionary.

Q. How did you adjust to your new home as a person who had never traveled to/in the U.S. before?

Xitong (Rebecca): When I first came to the U.S., I was only 17 years old. The language problem was definitely a huge struggle for me. Whenever an American talked to me, I could not understand; whenever I spoke to someone who was not Chinese, he or she could not understand either. Due to that, I tended to avoid making any more American friends. I felt my accent was ugly; I felt no American would like to talk with me. I felt deep loneliness from living in a foreign country.

Besides that, I also had a huge culture shock, because the U.S. is so much different compared with China. The types of food, the ways we do laundry, the transportation systems, and the etiquette in daily life were all something new to me that I needed to learn from the beginning. It almost seemed easier to just give up instead of overcoming all of these difficulties; however, my faith helped get me through. I also met nice teachers, who took their time to help me, at the WESL Institute, as well as friendly classmates who came from such other countries as Japan, Korea, and Saudi Arabia and who were willing to share with me information about their similar difficulties when coming to the U.S.

I also met nice Americans from Campus Students for Christ who invited me to their activities and helped me to understand American culture. These people gave me encouragement and helped boost my confidence to help me face the difficulties. I gradually solved more and more problems with their help and support.

Then, I shared my experience with other Chinese students and told them about never giving up. In 2013, I became the president of the Chinese Student Association, and I also volunteered in orientation for international students every year to share my experiences.

Q. What have been (or are) your favorite courses and why?

Xitong (Rebecca): My favorite course at WIU so far has been English 100, taught by Jacqueline Wilson-Jordan. After graduating from the WESL Institute, I took this course in my first semester of my studies at WIU. Although I learned a lot in WESL classes, I still could not fully understand the professors and my new American classmates. Professor Wilson was a nice and patient professor with a lot of teaching experience. She tried her best to understand the difficult situation of being an international student studying in a foreign country and helped me in any way she could. I enjoyed her classes with organized handouts, detailed explanations, vivid writing examples, and a friendly environment in the class. I not only learned a lot of helpful knowledge in her class, but I also experienced more Americans’ good personalities. My first semester was really the most memorable one in my college study. Later, I recommended Professor Wilson’s classes to other international students, and they all loved her teaching and gained useful tips on English writing.

Q. Tell me about one or two of your most memorable experiences yet as a student at Western.

Xitong "Rebecca" Chen with WIU Campus Students for Christ in Juarez, Mexico

Xitong “Rebecca” Chen volunteering with Campus Students for Christ in Juarez, Mexico, in 2014.

Xitong (Rebecca): In 2012, I went to Juarez, Mexico, with 18 other students from Campus Students for Christ. We went there to build a house for a Mexican family who did not have a home to stay in.

We drove three days from Macomb to Mexico. It was hard for us to sit in a vehicle for such a long time, as well as for the drivers to keep focusing on driving. We stayed in different churches on the way to Mexico, but there were not comfortable beds in the churches, so we either slept on the floor or brought  “easy beds” with us.

Conditions were more uncomfortable after arriving in Mexico. We could not take showers for three days, and during those three days, we worked from 7 a.m.–5 p.m. with only one half-hour for lunch. The weather there was also harsh. It was hot like summer in daytime, but cold like winter, without sunshine, at night. On the third day of building the house, it was even snowy. When I was in China, I was always a “princess” who did not need to do any rough work (even something simple such as washing the dishes), so, of course, building a house in Mexico is not something I had ever done before!

Xitong "Rebecca" Chen and fellow WIU Campus for Christ volunteers

Xitong “Rebecca” Chen and fellow WIU Campus for Christ volunteers in Juarez, Mexico.

We cut the wood, shoveled stone and sand, mixed the concrete, finished the foundation of the house on the empty sandy, ground, all on the first day. We hammered the wood sticks together and stood the wood frames on the foundation on the second day. On the third day, we filled insulation in the wood frame, added chicken wires out of the wall, covered the wires with concrete, helped with the electricity, made the roof, installed windows and doors for the house.

I learned all these English words and how to do this work in those three days. And the pain that came from the work (and affected every corner of my body) made me swear never join this activity again! But before we left Mexico, when we gave the Mexican family the keys of the house and prayed for them and their house, that changed my idea about this. All of this work was done to help others in God’s Kingdom.

In 2013, I went to Juarez, Mexico, with CSC again to build another house for another family. And I have registered for building another house in Juarez this year, too.