125 Stanford Stories

NO. 74
Student Life

Making the world feel at home

urmila and fam
Stanford volunteer Urmila John, in red apron, with family and Stanford international students at her home on Thanksgiving, 1993.
Photo courtesy Urmila John
foreign students
In the 1960s, foreign students were often photographed in costume to show their broadening influence on U.S. communities. Barbara Helsingius of Finland, 'MA 63, at left, displays her rhythmic gymnastic skills instead. Charmed by U.S. folk music while at Stanford, Helsingius recorded the songs in Finnish and became a folk-pop star back home.
Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service
i center dedication
Bechtel International Center's formal dedication in January 1967, after additions and renovations to a facility opened in 1963.
Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

Volunteers aid the complex job of hosting Stanford’s international students

Soon after Urmila John’s son Melind John ’94 headed to Stanford, she joined Stanford’s Parents’ Club. She wanted to learn more about the school her son had chosen over several others, why he so passionately felt, as he told his mother, that he “belonged to the campus” the moment he saw it.

A Parents’ Club friend got John into volunteering for Stanford, notably for the Community Committee for International Students (CCIS), a longstanding volunteer group closely linked to Stanford’s Bechtel International Center and key to the center’s opening in 1963.

The committee’s mission resonated with John because she, too, had come to the United States as a young foreign student knowing nobody.

“As a foreigner, I wanted these kids to feel comfortable,” John said. Raised in Mumbai, she attended a U.S. MBA program and eventually settled in the Bay Area.

John’s voluntarism for the university forged a deep Stanford connection of her own. She volunteered with CCIS for 15 years, helping expand Stanford’s global reach by acclimating its international students to American life.

Stanford has always had foreign students, and their numbers climbed after World War II. In 1954, Stanford enrolled 324 international students and postdoctoral scholars. By 1967, there were 1,013; by 1989, there were 2,477. Stanford’s first foreign student adviser came aboard in 1948 and the CCIS formed five years later.

“There are very few universities in this country that still have such a vibrant, active community volunteer organization,” John Pearson, Bechtel Center director from 1988 to June 2016, told the Stanford Historical Society. The CCIS was active in making sure there was an international center at Stanford, Pearson said, through advocacy, engagement and funding.

Today, one-third of Stanford’s 9,000 graduate students come from outside the United States, as do about 9 percent of its undergrads and more than 2,000 of its postdocs and visiting scholars. Meanwhile, the tracking requirements for foreign students and scholars that the U.S. government imposes on universities have soared.

While Bechtel Center staffers help these visitors navigate the bureaucracy and maintain their legal status, hundreds of volunteers like John help them improve their spoken English, perform unfamiliar tasks such as buying used cars, and otherwise adjust to the United States.

John joined the CCIS’ English in Action program, in which volunteers meet weekly with an international student or spouse for an English-language chat.

“Over coffee once a week at Tressider: I figured it was a small thing to do,” John said. “I meant to talk to them about their majors and so on. To help them with their English pronunciation.”

Instead, John found something much deeper. She said, “The relationships I made with students greatly enriched my life.” She invited them to Thanksgiving and Fourth of July dinners, walked with them through life crises, advised them on how to obtain credit or to buy a car. Some students became almost like family to her.

“Urmila’s care and time spent on me was not just a chance for me to feel a new culture and environment but also built personal trust and spiritual guidance, especially while I was struggling,” said Yong Lee, MS ’04, who came to Stanford from South Korea and has remained in touch with her for 12 years.

John Pearson was director of the Bechtel International Center from 1988 to June 2016. During that time, Stanford's international student and scholar presence more than doubled.
John Pearson, shown in 1990s photo, was director of the Bechtel International Center from 1988 to his retirement in June 2016. During that time, Stanford’s international student and scholar presence more than doubled.

In return, Urmila said, “I learned from the students. I grew with them.  I learned about new fields from talking with them about their studies.

“I got their perspective on history. I learned how world events are taught and viewed differently in Japan or China or Brazil.”

Urmila also worked with students’ spouses, who face their own challenges. Many are highly credentialed professionals in their own countries, but few have the legal right to work in the United States.

One young woman broke down and cried after one conversation, John said. She said she had been in Palo Alto for a year and no American had spent an hour with her, just talking in English.

“It’s not easy to make friends in America,” John said. “You can live in an apartment and it doesn’t mean someone is going to come knocking on your door to say hi.”

For spouses, CCIS offers the Professional Liaison Program, which pairs them with a U.S. practitioner in their own fields for mentoring and guidance, and the Spouse Education Fund for cultural enrichment through Stanford Continuing Studies and similar classes.

Among its many programs, CCIS also runs classes for students’ families at the Bechtel Center in various languages and cuisines. It offers homestays for new arrivals and their families, as well as coffee hours, book clubs and preschool play groups during the year.

After 15 years, Urmila stopped working with international students. Saying goodbye to each student had become too emotionally painful for her, as if she were parting with family.

She continues to be active in Parents’ Club, for local elementary schools and as a hostess at the university president’s annual reception for Stanford graduates at the Lou Henry House, the official residence.

“Stanford is wonderful,” John said. “I have to go by what the students think. I’ve never met one yet who didn’t like it.

“And it feels wonderful to be around the students. They rejuvenate me.

“If I stay home, I’ll hibernate. With them, I grow.”


Listen to longtime Bechtel International Center director John Pearson’s podcast from the Stanford Historical Society on international students at Stanford.

Read edited highlights of Pearson’s podcast.

Learn more about the Community Committee for International Students, including a detailed history.