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A Q&A With the President of Drexel’s International Graduate Student Association

April 20, 2018

Melvin Mathew, a doctoral candidate in the College of Engineering, spoke at the recent Festival of Nations, which he helped put together as president of Drexel's International Graduate Student Association.
Melvin Mathew, a doctoral candidate in the College of Engineering, spoke at the recent Festival of Nations, which he helped put together as president of Drexel's International Graduate Student Association.

Drexel University’s International Graduate Student Association (IGSA) lends a hand to graduate students who come to Drexel from all over the world — even before they arrive on campus. And once they’re here (possibly thanks to transportation IGSA helps to provide to take them to University City from the Philadelphia International Airport), IGSA offers even more assistance and services with information sessions and special scholarly, professional and cultural events on and off campus. Currently, there are more than 1,000 Dragons from more than 30 countries that are a part of IGSA.

The organization is led by Melvin Mathew, a doctoral candidate with the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics in the College of Engineering. He spoke with DrexelNow about his own involvement with the organization, which started when he first came to Drexel for his master’s degree, and touched upon everything from what he’s learned as IGSA president to what it was like pulling off the organization’s biggest event this past month.

Q: How long have you been IGSA president? How long have you been involved with IGSA, and have you held other previous positions there? 

A: I’ve held this position since the fall of 2017, although I unofficially started in the summer. It was very humbling to be nominated and selected to lead IGSA for 2017–2018. I was actually the director for social activities for IGSA through the year 2016– 2017, which was my first year of my return to Drexel for my PhD position. I had graduated from Drexel with my master’s degree in 2014 and I also had the privilege to lead Pragathi, the Indian graduate student organization, in the role of president in my final year then.

Q: What made you want to get involved with IGSA?

A: Honestly, Michael Ryan, PhD [director of graduate student organizations in the Graduate College and assistant teaching professor in the College of Engineering] caught up to me while I was grabbing free food at an event (ah! Grad student life!) and recommended volunteering to be a part of IGSA.

I always liked being active within the student body even from my undergraduate days. Taking a paper napkin sketch of an event and successfully hosting it with the team is very rewarding in itself. It also gave me a chance to interact with a lot more people and, now as part of IGSA, with a lot more different cultures as well.

Q: What are some of your goals this year for the organization?

A: IGSA has always maintained to be the intermediary for international students coming into Drexel. I remember contacting board members for advice during my first arrival to Drexel. Outside of help with culture shock, international students can receive assistance with key elements like banking, a cell phone plan, shopping options and safe neighborhoods to look for houses — these are all cushioning factors for incoming students. IGSA strives to reliably and consistently provide this in collaboration with the Graduate College and International Students and Scholars Services.

Some of our trademark “welcome package” events include airport pickup ­(we provide vouchers for free transport for students to get from the airport to University City); shopping trips via a daylong shuttle service to the Walmart, Best Buy and IKEA in South Philly; and a Thanksgiving dinner.

Q: Is there any way that IGSA is helping you with coursework/career opportunities/skills or vice versa?

A: IGSA does not directly help me with my coursework. But it’s a good release to take my mind off of the stresses of research. Career-wise, I think working with the team and other collaborators (in and out of Drexel) has definitely improved my communication and team building skills. I’ve also picked up some negotiating skills while trying to make events work on a budget.

Q: What does IGSA do? Can you list some past or annual events IGSA holds, and any upcoming events that students could join?

A: The purpose of IGSA is to get students involved with the general population and create opportunities to make new friends and share ideas and opinions. All of our events are open to the entire graduate student body.

Some of our trademark IGSA events include the Thanksgiving dinner, a Black Friday shopping trip and a Christmas holiday dinner. We also host outings including trips to Dave & Busters and theme parks.

This year we’ve started an academic track series of events called “The More You Know.” It involves general information sessions for students, such as explaining the credit system in the U.S., healthcare policies and also academic training workshops in coding languages such as Python and Matlab.

Another event we hosted (in collaboration with multiple other organizations) this year is called the Festival of Nations. The idea is to showcase the diversity that exists within the Drexel community. It’s about sharing and showcasing cultures through performances, music and cuisine. Most events held are generally delimited to undergraduates separate from graduates. We want to breakdown this barrier and provide university-wide exposure for the cultural organizations that students can get involved in. This year, Drexel’s Campus Activities Board worked with us to make this event happen. We’re hoping we can make this an annual festival celebrated by Drexel to showcase our unity in diversity. The Festival of Nations, to my knowledge, is the largest graduate and undergraduate collaboration held in quite a while.

Q: What are some of the benefits for students to join?

A: The benefits of joining IGSA is the exposure first of all. The networking opportunities are huge. For international students, having access to alumni that have gone through visa procedures and hiring processes is very beneficial. It’s also a nice way to interact with staff and faculty at Drexel, who are always more than happy to assist with our work.

Q: And because it’s the International Graduate Student Association … are you an international student? How long have you been in the States, and where are you from? How did you find Drexel?

A: Yes, I am an international student. I’ve been in the States since 2012. Saying that year out loud always catches me by surprise! With regard to where I’m from, I’m Indian but was born and brought up in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. My parents went there for work in the early ’80s. I spent a few years in India for my undergraduate studies and a year working.

I came across Drexel while looking through robotics and health monitoring research while initially looking to apply for universities. Its proximity to my extended family here did sway my decision as well!