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.

NPR reporter speaks for Journalism Day

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.” Millions of radio listeners hear those words at the closing of certain national news reports. And on Thursday (March 31), WIU students got to hear them in person, as Corley delivered the keynote speech for Journalism Day at WIU.

With a laptop onstage in the University Union Sandburg Lounge, Corley, a national desk reporter for NPR’s Chicago bureau, played for the audience one of her recent pieces, from the series of seven stories called Youths And Gun Violence: Chicago’s Challenge, that aired and was featured on last week.

(more, below the photo)

photo of Cheryl Corley speaking at podium

After playing the feature about the young men in Chicago who participated in a program called BAM (Becoming a Man), Corley explained that, in order to develop the series, the reporters who worked on it had to develop a sense of trust with the subjects who were interviewed. The series took several weeks to report, she said, and over the process of her interviews, at least one young man admitted to her that he had shot at, but never hit, another person.

In her reportage on “Getting To Chicago’s Boys Before Gangs Do,” Corley noted that

The 13- and 14-year-old BAM members know many their age that have joined gangs.

At least 15 students who attend Chicago Public Schools have died by gunfire during this school year. The number is higher for kids who are either dropouts or go to other types of schools.

Chicago police report that the number of school-aged children shot to death in 2010 was 70. More than half of those were gang-related.

Each year, WIU’s Journalism Day, co-sponsored by the English and journalism department and Western’s Society of Professional Journalists, features noted members of the profession who speak about their careers. Corley, who began her career in nearby Peoria, Ill., described the current state of journalism as “a world of turmoil, but also innovation.” She delivered an overview of how NPR member stations and the overall nonprofit news organization brings news to listeners via bureaus around the country and the world. She explained that even though she is based in Chicago, she covers news in as many as 12 states.

“That means that I get up at 5 a.m. and I read 12 newspapers,” she said. “It might not be fun,” she said with a laugh, “but I can tell you what’s happening in Missouri.”

Corley also briefly addressed criticism of NPR for being “elitist” or having a liberal bias, as well as recent controversy surrounding the recent firing of NPR’s CEO, stressing that the values of public journalism are to be accurate and balanced, and to “provide a voice for “voices that don’t always get to be heard in a wider medium.”

Corley talked about the importance of the intimacy of the human voice and the rich use of sound in public radio. But even as continues to grown into a multimedia organization with streaming sound, offering podcasts and other rich archives via the web, Corley stressed that in that changing face of journalism, the public radio journalist’s duties remain the same: “…being fair, taking rigorous steps to be accurate, … proving diverse perspectives in a narrative way.”

Got style? WIU’s ‘College Fashionistas’ can tell you!

Are you really going to wear those sweatpants?


photo of College Fashionista bloggers

WIU 'College Fashionista' bloggers Maisey Kolin, left, and Chelsea Dieckow, right,


You might want to think twice about the image you’re projecting when you choose what to wear. Why does it matter? Because your style is an expression of who you are, say Maisie Kolin and Chelsea Dieckow (right), two WIU students who are currently interning as bloggers for The web site, which features bloggers from colleges and universities across the country, takes a “man [or woman] on the street” approach, highlighting students who happen to be

sporting fashionable looks as they head to class. Kolin and Dieckow serve as the style spotters for the WIU section of the blog, working as interns for the fall semester. Dieckow writes Style Advice for the Week on Mondays, while Maisie is responsible for Trend reports three days per week.

Kolin, a senior journalism major from Naperville, Ill., who will graduate in December, and Dieckow (right), senior fashion merchandising major with a double minor in journalism and management, from Dunlap, Ill., shared with Beyond the Bell Tower how they landed their roles as “Fashionistas,” how they define style, and what it’s like to approach Western students randomly to talk to them about their looks.

‘Fervor for fashion’

Bell Tower: Let’s start with your own fashion. How would you describe your personal style or favorite item(s) to wear?

Chelsea: My style is eclectic—kind of straight out of the 80s, with the use of bright colors, psychedelic patterns, unique textures, and retro accessories. Recently, some of my favorite ensembles ahs included high-waisted dark denim shorts, signature necklaces, and plenty of three-fourths-length plaid shirts.

Maisie: I love the indie grunge look, but have a closet full of structured blazers. I like mixing trends, by pairing something very feminine with something rugged or tough, like lace with leather, or florals with destroyed denim. My absolutely favorite item to shop for is denim. A great pair of jeans will last a lifetime.

How did you find out about the opportunity to write for the College Fashionista blog?

Chelsea: I heard about through Kayla Stephens, who was the first “Style Guru” for Western Illinois University last year. She was a fashion merchandising major too, and we were good friends through Greek life. She gave me a reference and then I contacted the founder, Amy Levin, in the summer. I received the job first, and I actually gave Maisie a reference because I knew she was good at professional writing and had fervor for fashion.

Maisie: And I actually got interviewed by one of the previous interns in early 2010.

What’s required to become bloggers for College Fashionista?

Chelsea: Having a huge appreciation towards fashion was crucial. We had to send Amy Levin (the CF founder) writing samples, proving we knew how to write for the fashion business. On our phone interview, we described our distinctive styles and how we would approach writing for the blog. I explained that I would incorporate fashion media, culture, diversity, and up-to-the minute fashion news when writing articles for College Fashionista.

Maisie: The interview itself was really comfortable and relaxed. She asked us about out involvement at WIU, our own personal style and what we were feeling this season.

Had either of you done any previous blogging or student journalism?

Chelsea: This was my first blogging experience, and I absolutely love doing it. This is the writing experience I need for my future, considering I want to work for a fashion magazine.

Maisie: Being a journalism student, I’ve always kept some sort of personal blog. Over four years of writing, keeping up with it became easier and easier. [More after the jump.]


Screen shot of a WIU Fashionista

A WIU Fashionista spotted on campus


What have you learned by blogging? Has there been anything about writing for this blog that you didn’t expect?

Chelsea: I’ve learned how to write effectively and creatively. I’ve also learned the importance of punctuality when it comes to deadlines. Deadlines are a necessity in the writing industry, and I’ve learned to discipline myself and get my blog in on time. In addition, I have learned more about fashion jargons and how writing for the fashion industry is more imaginative and artsy. I enjoy reading other posts and looking at trends from other schools across the country. This internship has really opened my eyes to different styles and ways of putting outfits together.

Maisie: College Fashionista really helped me with introductions. It takes guts to walk up to someone and ask for a photo and short interview. School prepared me for the task, but CF actually allowed me to put it to work. Now I have no problem with interviewing. Also, having a weekly assignment that’s published online (we write out posts a week in advance) really keeps me on my toes when it comes to writing. I feel like I’ve excelled in acquiring a voice in my writing.

How do you spot the “Fashionistas” or “Fashionistos” (as the blog calls them) on campus? Do you know one immediately when you see one? What are some of the telltale signs?

Chelsea: College Fashionista tends to have more of a hipster, indie style of dress. I really just look for anything that speaks to me, such as a trendy accessory or this season’s must-haves. Fashion-forward ensembles that are unique and then at the same time, I have to think – how can I write an article about this? What message do I want to convey to the students? How can they incorporate this look into their own wardrobes?

Maisie: I have an hour break between all of my classes, so I usually get some coffee and just people-watch at the Union or on some bench on campus. Early on, it was pretty simple to spot Fashionistas. The first week of school, everyone tries to look their best. I kind of predicted this, so I snapped quite a few photos to have on file. Usually you can spot a Fashionista or Fashionisto because they are so put together. We look for that flawless style, something that just works. Not just jeans and a cute top, but some sort of trend that is going around in the fashion world. It’s easy to spot a Fashionista or Fashionisto among a swarm of gym shorts and WIU t-shirts. We’re not looking for heels and party dresses, we’re just looking for people who have style. I’m finding a lot more Fashionistos on campus this year, which makes me happy. It’s great that guys are getting more enthusiastic about fashion.

How do you approach someone to feature on the blog? Does it ever feel awkward?

Chelsea: I have no problem approaching students on campus! I take pictures while I’m going to class, at lunch, or just out on the town. You have to be personal—let them know how enthusiastic you are about working for a fashion website. Journalism is all about interviewing people and keeping an open mind. It’s the thing with for College Fashionista; you have to be receptive to other people’s styles and personalities.
I take my camera to most of my classes. I have never had someone refuse to have his or her picture taken. Not only do you have to take a snapshot, but also you need to take the picture in a creative way with an interesting angle, solid background, and an overall good composition.

Maisie: Early on, it was fairly awkward. I would always apologize unknowingly. One of my friends actually pointed out that I would apologize for “sounding creepy.” After that, I really focused on relaxing and just starting with a compliment and explaining the blog itself. Once people know why you’re taking a photo of them, they get quite bashful. It’s a huge compliment when someone wants to feature you on a blog. I know it made my entire week when I was asked. I felt famous.
As for equipment, there’s nothing too fancy. Chelsea and I both have our point-and-shoot cameras on us at all times. You never know when a Fashionista or Fashionisto will cross your path. Just sitting outside and people watching is one of my favorite hobbies, so it works to my advantage with CF. Especially in nice weather. We have one post a week, so I usually set aside two or three days to find someone. Going farther into the semester, people are starting to get a little more lazy, so I allow myself more time to find a good photo.

Do you find that the students you feature have heard of College Fashionista? What kind of response do you get from fans of the blog?

Chelsea: Some students have heard of us! But most of the time, I have to explain what it is. Students are usually flattered, and I always make sure to tell them the exact address for the website and when the blog will be posted.

Maisie: Chelsea and I are working hard to spread word about the website through campus. We’re working on flyers and business cards to have people check out the website more frequently. Once in a while I come across someone who knows the website or has read my material. It’s still shocking to me, because it is a relatively new website to the WIU campus. We’re here to change that.

What are some of the specifics of your internship?

Chelsea: It is an unpaid internship; however, the experience is amazing and I would do it regardless. I find myself being more aware of Western’s fashion trends and what kind of genres of style we have on campus.  And Friday is Boutique of the Week—currently I’m working on a post for Envy Boutique [located on the Macomb Square]. You can also do Fashion News posts throughout the week.

Maisie: We do get college credits for the work we do. It also allows me a great opportunity to add to my portfolio of published material. Each week we are to post one entry. We do work on deadlines, so it is a serious job. Some weeks we are supposed to look for specific topic, like trends from Fashion Week or Homecoming (which we weren’t allowed to photograph typical WIU gear). But some weeks, we write about a topic of our choice. There is some leniency with posts, but ultimately we do have a predicted topic which Amy has chosen for us.

What do you to do stay up on the industry and the styles? Have both of you always had a flair for fashion, or is it something you’ve learned?

Chelsea: It’s all about trends and convergence. Being a Fashion Merchandising major, I’ve learned many terms for the fashion lexicon, and I try to apply it to all of my posts. I read Women’s Wear Daily, New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal to stay on top of the global context of the textile and trade press, as well as a ton of fashion magazines, like Cosmo, Vogue, Glamour, Nylon, Foam, and Lucky. In addition, I am president of the Visual Apparel Merchandising Organization at Western, so let’s just say, fashion is definitely my passion.  Ever since I was little, I have always enjoyed putting outfits together for the week. Stylizing, accessorizing, figuring out what color combinations go well together – it has always been a hobby of mine.

Maisie: Fashion has always been a love of mine. I’ve never taken a fashion course, so everything I know I’ve learned myself. I do read a lot of fashion blogs and have quite a lot of magazine subscriptions. I try to keep up with trends as much as possible, not only for CF, but also for my own benefit. I love clothing. I’m a shopaholic, so I am constantly looking for new styles and popular trends on the runway. I’ve always been a girl who cannot leave the house in sweatpants. I just can’t do it.

Do you think it’s hard to stay stylish while living the college lifestyle?

Chelsea: Absolutely not; fashion doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s about working with what you have to create an outfit that is innovative and fresh. One of my favorite quotes is “Style is an expression of individualism mixed with charisma.  Fashion is something that comes after Style.” Fashion is wearable art and there are endless possibilities. Make a necklace out of an old shoelace or turn that swatch of fabric into an awesome scarf. Fashion is like history, it repeats itself. And I believe that fashion brings people together; much like values, customs, beliefs, and norms. Fashion, to me, is the visual aesthetic expression of oneself.

Maisie: I really don’t think it’s hard to stay fashionable with what you have. I’m an avid believer of mixing-and-matching to get new outfits. There are things that never go out of style, like a denim jacket or a plain white button-up. There’s so much you can do with just a white t-shirt. Wear it with a skirt. Wear it with leggings and a high-waisted belt. Wear it with a vest. Pile on jewelery to add glam. You don’t have to drop hundreds of dollars to look good. You can do a lot with what you have.

How would you defend the fashion industry, or the whole point of something like College Fashionista, if you were to hear someone say that looks aren’t important?

Maisie: Fashion, like everything, is an acquired taste. I’ve met so many people who don’t want to bother with clothing and accessories, but in reality, I do believe it has a lot to do with your success. I’m an avid believer in “If you look good, you feel good.” Clothing has a lot to do with success. You can’t show up to an interview with wrinkled clothing or looking too gaudy. Clothing tells a lot about a person, and it gives people an opportunity to meet you before they meet you. A lot of people on campus look at me and constantly ask, “Oh, do you have a presentation?” because I wear a blouse instead of a torn t-shirt. Here’s my thing: anywhere else in the world I would have been complimented on looking presentable, but in college, I stand out as trying too hard. I don’t understand that.

You never know when a potential boss, or even a date will walk past you. Looking presentable, whether in class or at an interview, can really affect the way people treat you. We are young adults and we should dress the part.

What do you enjoy about writing for this blog? What might be some challenges about doing it? How do you hope to transfer this experience into your post-college lives?

Chelsea: Everything. I enjoy learning style tips from other Fashionistas. I enjoy tagging posts and suggesting merchandising. I enjoy putting my creative mind to use. I enjoy taking artistic pictures. And I enjoy the social interaction with students. One challenge about this internship is being able to write my posts effectively. I want to improve my writing skills every day, so I can take that with me when I venture off into the real world.

Maisie: This is my potential life. This is what I want to do as a career, so writing for CF has really taught me what to expect from the media world. It’s difficult, especially being set in a college atmosphere, to write to my abilities. Juggling homework, clubs, social life and this internship is a challenge, but it keeps me busy and I like that.

I really want to work in the media world. I’d love to write for a fashion magazine/website/blog/etc., especially after writing for CF. This opportunity really helped me develop the portfolio that I need to get my dream job. I’d love to work for a magazine like Nylon. Their style is so fresh and youthful, and I feel as though I would have a lot to bring to their company. Ultimately, any media job would be my dream job, whether it be in television, print, or radio. It’s always fast paced and forever changing.