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‘The campus mom’

Moua-Vue helps international students navigate at SMSU, in the community

Photo by Jim Tate In the photo, Dr. May Lee Moua-Vue serves as director of international student services and global studies.

In a lot of ways, Dr. May Lee Moua-Vue is a surrogate mother for the international students at Southwest Minnesota State University.

Moua-Vue is in her second year at the university as the Director of International Student Services and Global Studies, and after a year navigating COVID-19 restrictions, she’s looking forward to a more ‘normal’ experience as she helps international students acclimate to SMSU.

She welcomes 66 first-year international students this academic year. Counting transfer students and 17 MBA graduate students from Taiwan, there’s approximately 90 new international students on campus. The total number of international students is approximately 177, she said.

This year’s first-year international students represent 14 different countries, with Ethiopia leading the way. “Jamaica, Indonesia, Portugal, Tanzania — they are from all over the world,” she said. That number is a sharp increase from a year ago.

SMSU was ranked the safest campus in Minnesota a year ago “and that is important to the international students,” she said. “They look online, and find the rankings. SMSU is ranked in the top seven in the country as far as affordability for international students. We offer a quality education, in a safe setting where everything you need is right here. We have a wonderful community transit system that’s free to the students and allows them to access groceries, ethnic restaurants and grocery stores. That partnership with Marshall Area Transit Service has been wonderful.”

International students from SMSU have an economic impact of $14.1 million in the area, and support 21 jobs, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. “Some of the international students come here having never stepped foot on campus,” she said. “That’s a big leap, to travel halfway around the world. They come without family members, without anyone accompanying them.”

International students arrived on campus Aug. 16 for orientation.

“When they arrive (at the Minneapolis airport) we arrange a rate with nearby hotels for them,” she said. “Then we send a bus to pick them up and bring them to SMSU for orientation.”

International students have concerns that most students don’t face, she said. “This year, for the first time, we are working with a cellular phone company to get them phones. Their phones won’t work here, and they arrive and haven’t called home. There’s a lot of angst and anxiety connected with that.

“On top of that they don’t know anyone here, and they have to rebuild their support system, make new friends. One of their biggest fears is who they can rely on. There’s so much of a cultural difference, too. It’s hard for them to approach locals. What are the cues for making new friends? What are the cues for dating? They all have to navigate these things,” Moua-Vue said.

Domestic students take for granted many things international students struggle with.

“Living in the residence halls, food, missing mom’s cooking, fashion, and the four seasons are some,” she said.

Several church groups and individuals in Marshall yearly make quilts for the international students.

“We have wonderful partnerships with them, and the students are very appreciative,” Moua-Vue said.

She embraces her role as “the campus mom. I can be an older sister or auntie, too. I’m their best cheerleader and advocate. I am the first one to congratulate them, and I also tell them we have high expectations.”

She comes to SMSU from Xavier University in Cincinnati. “Working with international students is my passion,” she said. “I have an international background — my family came over here from Laos during the Vietnam War, I was a refugee. I can relate to their needs and concerns. The best part of my job is that I get to talk with students from all over the world. That’s amazing. They teach me as much as I teach them.”

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