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Drexel LeBow Adviser Helps International Grad Students Settle In

September 3, 2013

Donna Ferrari

A college adviser is similar to the stage crew of a play. The behind-the-scenes work is essential to success, and a vital influence on experiences.

Donna Ferrari, a developmental adviser for Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, helps students get on track to achieve their accounting or finance graduate degrees. She also helps grad students with their career search. Without Ferrari’s dedication to the job, many students would struggle to find the direction that’s essential to thrive in a new environment. 

Most of Ferrari’s graduate students are international, so for the past three weeks, she’s been meeting them at the airport and helping them get to Drexel’s University City Campus. This week, she began new student orientation for 100 students. In the past, a typical orientation for graduate students would only last two days before classes started. Ferrari, who has been at Drexel for eight years, altered the schedule to allow a three-week orientation specifically to accommodate students coming from other countries.

“It gives them time to look for an apartment, and get their electricity and bank accounts set up,” Ferrari said.

A few years ago, Ferrari set up a deal for new international students to stay at Millennium Hall for $37 per night before the fall trimester starts. It gives them an inexpensive option while they apartment shop around the city.

But Ferrari’s efforts to help her grad students transition haven’t stopped there.

As an introduction to the U.S. business market, Ferrari assigned three books for summer reading to her students. They will present their findings to her in groups over the next few weeks.

“Having them read three books really gives them at least a little bit of a foundation to discuss in class,” she said. “It also helps me see what their presentation skills are like so I can advise them on how to improve.”

But being an adviser to mainly international students is no small task. Ferrari said there are many cultural differences she must take into consideration when advising.

“They’ll come in and be chatting with me about some issue and I’ll say, ‘Well let’s look at this and see if this is just something unusual or a cultural difference,’” she said.

In fact, because it plays such a major role in an international student’s experience in the United States, one of the discussion topics at this year’s orientation—which was planned entirely by Ferrari—is cultural differences.

Also at the orientation, a group of faculty members will discuss the U.S. education system, Emily Missner from Drexel University Libraries will give a lesson on using the online databases and Stephen Rupprecht from Student Affairs will talk about academic integrity. Drexel Police Chief Edward Spangler will be stopping in to discuss safety tactics, as well as a representative of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau who will chat about Philadelphia neighborhoods and cultural attractions. There will be a Microsoft Exel tutoring session, a time-management discussion and there’s even a planned presentation on dressing for success.

Ferrari said because the U.S. education system is so different from others, a lot of what an adviser does is essential to the University’s ability to retain international grad students.

“I think for many of them, because it’s so drastically different, they would be on the first plane back to China,” Ferrari said.

Ferrari said the reason most of her students are international and more specifically from China is because there’s an urgency for the Chinese to acquire finance and accounting graduate degrees.

“The United States has not caught up to the master’s of science program,” she said. “The degree of preference in the United States is still the MBA, in China it’s the MS.”

A fun part of Ferrari’s job is when she gets to know her students outside of academia, she said. Last year she attended Philadelphia’s spring Chinese New Year celebration.

“I don’t speak Chinese, but I got to see the students in a totally different light,” Ferrari said. “They were performing beautiful music on ancient instruments or singing and dancing. You think how well-rounded they are, and you get a different impression of them as opposed to just what their academics say.”