Person of the Week

Margie Hamlin

International Student Coordinator

Somebody had to reverse prejudice and make the international students feel loved and wanted and cherished and highlighted as a special gift to our community.  I just loved each one on these students and in turn love is reflected in love.

1.  What led you to the mission of being an international student coordinator?

There had always been international students at my college, but there hadn’t been someone who looked after their needs.  As a house mom, I was given committees and other jobs to do.  One was to “check in on the international students”.  I checked and I found…. one in this dorm, one in this dorm, one in this dorm, one in this dorm….  They didn’t know each other.  They were almost invisible because they felt so isolated.

I immediately got all the international students together for lunch and we began to create an international club.  Eventually not only the internationals students were in it, but all the other students wanted to be in it too!  There were many needs not being addressed – particularly the international students’ isolation from each other.  And so we got to be a group and after five years as a house mom, I realized I couldn’t do that job any more.  I couldn’t do anything for the house because I was spending my whole time with international students.  They were the most interesting people!  I just fell in love with what I was doing.  (To read about a special award given to Margie, click here.)

I decided to quit being a house mom and thought it was time for a full time international student coordinator.  I was told that there was no money for one.  I said, “Well, that’s all right.  I’ll just go home.  My mother needs me.”  Three months later, the president of the college called and said, “My gosh, you need to come back up here, we need you!”  Things were falling apart.  The international students were in need.  What they needed was special nurturing in their whole new surrounding in college.

I was the first international student coordinator and commuted from St. Louis, Missouri to Elsah, Illinois – until the program got to fifty students.  Then students needed someone twenty-four hours a day and weekends.  I couldn’t do this because I lived to far away.  It had gotten to the point that sometimes I would have to sleep on the floor of a little house on campus called the “Mistake House”.  Fifty students were too much!  They needed someone who was living on campus.

One day I was on campus and saw Bente Morse, a graduated international student from Denmark.  I saw her and asked, “What are you doing here?”  She said, “I’m looking for a job.”  I said, dsc03815“You’re looking for a job?  I am trying to find someone who can live on campus and be the international student coordinator full time.”  (She lived on campus.)  She said, “Oh my gosh, I was an international student.”  I told her, “It’s the best job on campus!”  I thought, “Thank you Father, you brought her at the right moment!”  The international student enrollment got to fifty and then there came a time when there were over a hundred international students on campus.  We had the highest percentage of international students on campus than any other college or university in the United States.  Now, twenty percent of our students are from other countries.  (To hear an interview with Bente, click on this sentence.)

2.  What does this mission mean to you?

I think becoming the coordinator came from on high.  I just loved each one of these students.  There were so precious.  They were teaching me so much.  I was learning things I would never learn just going about my usual American life.  They just expanded the whole world for me.

Then my husband and I started taking trips abroad.  We took college students and started exposing them to more than the students on campus.  We took two trips to Kenya, one to Russia, and one to India.  We were contacting people in the churches there and found there were more students who wanted to come.

My family expanded!  I had a wonderful global family. When I took over being coordinator, they all stayed at my house at first because in the past no one had picked them up at the airport.  I could not believe that.  I began to hear what happened to them when they arrived.  One sat in Chicago and thought she was in St. Louis.  Once she got to the states she wondered where the college was.  Nobody was there to meet her.

I later found out that the first international candidate we ever had arrived in St. Louis airport in the middle of the night.  He didn’t know where the college was or how to get there.   He didn’t have the right kind of money to telephone.  Finally the operator said, “Why don’t you just make this a collect call.”  Someone at the college then said, “Well, go to the place where they have a van and hire the van to take you to the college.”   He didn’t know anything about where he was going!  It was all totally new to him.  He was put in the back of a van and he thought he was being abducted because it took over an hour to go from the airport to the college in the middle of the night.   He didn’t know where he was going.

These stories are before they had an international student coordinator.  Later after being coordinator, I said, “Nobody came to get you?”  He said, “No.”  When he got to the college, he went to the dorm and a student took him to the basement.  There was nobody else in the basement.  They told him that was his room.  They asked him, “Where is your luggage.”  He only had a bag and he said, “This is my luggage.”  They asked him, “Where’s the rest?  Is it being shipped?”  He said, “This is my luggage.  This is all I have.”  That’s all he had, one bag full!  They left him there in the basement room.  You know, sometimes people are so ignorant.  They didn’t know how to help him.  That’s all he brought was one little bag.

Then in the morning he really panicked.   He had never been in a basement.  He didn’t know how to get out.  In Kenya, there are no basements and everything is built on the same level.  But there he was in the morning, in a new place, in the basement, and he couldn’t get out!  He looked everywhere for a door to get him upstairs.

Just little things like this happened at first.  After I took over the job as the first coordinator, I thought, “How is it possible that we let somebody come here and flounder like that in a new country.”  So I had the privilege for fifteen years of meeting every plane of every single new international student.  That creates a bond.  I was the first one to greet the student into this country.  I would say, “I’m so happy you are here!”  It made a bond that really did seem like a family.  I just met all these precious young people coming here for the first time in their lives.  I felt so enriched!  My life was enriched!

3.  What was your best day as an international student coordinator?

I remember when we had five African men on campus.  I thought, “Why do we not have any African women?”  I took students on a trip abroad to Africa and I met these beautiful people at the church in Nairobi.  There was a young woman with a beautiful smile!  I wondered why she wasn’t a student at our college.  I went over and asked her why she wasn’t at our school.  She said, “Oh I could never get in.”  I said, “Let’s get an application and see if you could come.”  She was the first young woman to come from Kenya.

Five years later we had six African women and they put on dance and the tears were just running down my face.  Six beautiful African women dancing out on the chapel green for our Whole World Festival.  I just remember being very moved.

Then I met Duyen, my Vietnamese son who I met on the streets of Hanoi in 1994.  Next year it will be twenty years since we met.  For four years we communicated by mail.  There was no email or other way to contact each other.  I didn’t know he was going without lunch and dinner.  He had go without eating because to buy a stamp was a dollar and he couldn’t afford the stamp unless he went without food.  The letters took three weeks each way.  We did this for four years before we brought him over to this country.  He finally came over to this country and was able to learn English.  This was another great memory.  There are so many!

4.  What was your worst day as an international student coordinator?

My worst day was hearing about some of the early experiences of international students.  The experiences took place before people were educated enough to know how to treat them.  Like in the financial aid office, someone said to one of the Africans who was asking for a loan to do an internship.  The person in the office said, “Why are you internationals always asking for something extra.  We are already giving you so much.  We don’t do this much for our own students!”  He came to me and asked, “Who are “our own students?”

That kind of thing could make it a worst day.  Another was, “Why are international students always working in the dish room instead of being a secretary or working in the library or some place visible?”  At that time so many years ago, there was subtle racism that was part of the culture.  It wasn’t our college alone.  It was the whole nation.  Things weren’t sorted out yet to realize that these people were our prize gifts on campus.  Those times were very hard on me.

Once I said to a student, “You’ve been here a whole quarter and you are still washing your clothes by hand?  Don’t you know how to use the washing machine?  Come here let me show you.”  She said, “One girl showed me, but then I forgot how.  I didn’t want to embarrass her and make her think she didn’t do a good job.  I just couldn’t remember so I didn’t ask her again.”  Hearing things like that were low moments.  I thought this never should be happening.  We have to do more to help and support the students.

Sometimes there were people who would say to me, “Oh I want your job.”  But I can’t explain it.  I don’t think it would have worked because they were too American.  At that time, people just wouldn’t catch the details that were needed to help the international students feel at home.  Somebody had to reverse that prejudice daily and make the international students feel loved and wanted and cherished and highlighted as a special gift to our community.  Somebody had to be doing that.

5.  How did you survive your worst day?

Love.  I just love them so much.  In turn, love is reflected in love.  They were so devoted to me.  This is so enriching.  I think that they are giving me so much and they feel cherished because somebody cares.  Bente, the coordinator that took over after I did, was so phenomenal.  Not only did she have that mother love, but she also knew all about visas, taxes, all about how to get from the one-year program to the four-year program – because that is what she did, and so much more.

In the beginning of the program, we were turning people down for a four-year education.  The international students would stay for a year and then have to go back to their countries.  She was an international student who had broken through that barrier and stayed all four years.  She was from Denmark.  She was the most joyous and loving person.  If anyone was ever going to be kicked out for any reason, she was always on the side of the student!  She could see the beauty and the value in everyone.  She always wanted to work things out.

I loved wearing the costumes of the international students.  They would be afraid to wear them.  Then they saw me wearing them and they would wear them.  I started getting gifts.  If they went home and came back, they would bring me another outfit.  Bente must have had a big closet because the students would bring here things as well.  It made everyone feel more comfortable wearing these special clothes.

Think of the millions of beautiful people in our world that haven’t been recognized yet.  We are constantly meeting people who are doing great things – like that boy who made the windmill in his little village.   There is book after book of that kind of thing – all this potential out there.  We are tapping it bit by bit.  Like me finding this little boy in Hanoi.  He has not only changed my life, but the hundreds of people here who now know him.   His Vietnamese family is hundreds of people.  I now know them and have stayed in their homes.  What enrichment to my life to go to the little village where he was brought up!

I don’t know how you would prepare for a job like this.  Frankly, I think God gave it to me.  The only way to prepare would be to love people.  You can find them in your own neighborhood.   You don’t have to go all the way across the ocean.  That’s what I have realized.  There are people right where you are to love.

For instance, there is an international center downtown.  They have immigrants and wives who have come here to study and work.  Often when they come, they don’t speak any English and are lost when they arrive.  I absolutely love going down there.  They need friends.  It’s that simple.  You go down and give a half an hour to talk to somebody who has nobody to speak to.  They are trying to learn English and just need someone to talk to.  You get to know these people and realize they have never been to an American home and they have no one – even if they have neighbors.  So often the neighbors are too busy and won’t talk to them.

Everybody needs a friend.  That’s what it means to be an international student coordinator.  That’s something everyone can do in their own community – to love each person and in turn to get the great benefits that come from loving.