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A trip worth waiting for

December 22, 2012
By Jim Tate - SMSU , Marshall Independent

Twelve years ago, Sandy Nelson promised a student from Nepal, Ajit Shah, that she'd visit that country. This past summer, she kept that promise.

Nelson, the coordinator of International Student Services at SMSU, traveled to Katmandu, Nepal, with her daughter Kimberly.

"I wish I had done it 12 years ago," said Nelson, who will retire on Feb. 1. "It would have given me a better perspective on what our international students go through. The cultural shock is immense."

Nelson has been at SMSU since 1988. She started as a "floater" in Social Science, Business Office, Registration, Admissions, Education and Cultural Diversity. "I was on call, whenever an opening occurred, I filled in. Sometimes that was for two weeks, sometimes for six months."

She liked the work in the Minority Student Services office. That office morphed into the Office of Cultural Diversity which, a couple of years ago, was split into International Student Services and Diversity & Inclusion. She stayed on in International Student Services.

She likes to joke that when she started working with international students, that she was a mother figure.

"I'm now a grandmother figure," she said.

Nelson has many duties in the office, perhaps none as important as listener. "

When the students come here, they leave their family, their country, their culture and their traditions. The food is different, along with the climate. Everything is foreign to them. Some of the students don't' get home for seven or eight years, many go on to grad school, so I try and make the transition as easy as possible."

Making the students feel at home in a foreign land is at the top of her priority list. The International Student Services office at SMSU is a welcoming place where students can hang out during the day. SMSU has 121 international students from 23 countries. There are also 10 international faculty members from nine countries.

Traditional programs coordinated by Nelson include the International Art Festival, International Food Festival, International Craft Sale & Flea Market, and the International Sash Ceremony as part of commencement. "Plus all of the other cultural and religious traditions," she said.

Her empathy was deepened when her daughter went overseas.

"I sent Kimberly who at the time was 16, over to France for nine months and that was before email and Skype. I can identify with their parents and what they are going through."

Over the years, there have been some hard times. "

We've had our share of tragedies over the past five years," she said, listing at least six deaths. "We went into it now knowing what we were doing. We didn't know that women aren't allowed at funerals in Nepal, for instance," she said. "Each culture is different."

Food plays a big part of the office. Drop in and there's always something to munch on. Casual potlucks are often held there.

"It's a comfort zone for them," said Nelson. "Food always brings people together. These students have very strong family ties, their family circle is much closer than we have in the U.S. They still have family dinners and they last for hours. The mother and father are well respected and the family is first and foremost.

"At SMSU, the international students have adopted each other. They know they are in the same boat."

She is a Granite Falls native married to husband Larry. They have three children: Jeffrey, Kimberly and Kristine. She worked at a bank before starting her family, "then I took 17 years of maternity leave."

What will she miss the most? "The people ? students, faculty, staff ? and the daily contact and interaction with people. I'm going to catch up on stuff I haven't done in a long time. Maybe travel, and look for a part-time job."

She didn't want a big going-away bash because she knew that once she started crying, she wouldn't stop. Her friends on campus, however, have been quietly planning a little going-away bash, and she's aware of it.

"There have been so many good times, so many good relationships established. I'll miss it," she said.



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