Sandy Britton finds it natural and rewarding to make connections with international students at Indiana University Bloomington. She was once an international student herself.
"International students are close to my heart," said Britton, IU's associate director of international student life. "I can relate to them. This job is a perfect fit for me."
A native of Panama, Britton came to the U.S. in the 1970s to study at Northwood University, which then had a campus at the historic West Baden Springs Hotel in southern Indiana. Her plan was to improve her English skills, earn a U.S. degree and return home to work with a business in the Canal Zone.
But fate intervened. She fell in love with a fellow student, got married and settled in Bloomington. "We just felt this instant connection to Bloomington," she said. "We got jobs, stayed, and this is where we raised our children."
Britton eventually returned to school to earn a master's degree in higher education and student affairs from the IU School of Education. She has worked for the university since 2001.
Her duties with the Office of International Student Services include organizing and coordinating programs to help international students and their families feel at home, make friends and become integrated into the community.
These include Cultural Connections, which pairs international and domestic student groups for joint activities; a Conversation Partners program that matches international students with U.S. students for language practice; the Student Life Series of workshops focused on academic skills and U.S. culture; and a Friday Noon Concert Series in the IU Art Museum atrium, often featuring performances by international students in the Jacobs School of Music.
A highlight is the IU World's Fare, which takes place every November, co-sponsored with Union Board. It's an opportunity to sample foods from across the globe and for international student organizations to celebrate and share art, music and dance along with other exhibits and performances.
Britton notes that many international students arrive in the U.S. with families, and they're likely to adjust to academic life better if they know their spouses and children are doing well. Thus, a favorite program for Britton is the International Spouses Circle, which provides weekly activities through which spouses can socialize, make friends and learn about Bloomington.
"International spouses are sometimes a forgotten population," she said. "This gives spouses an opportunity to practice English at the same time they are meeting others and having fun."
Rendy Schrader, IU's director of international student and scholar advising, said Britton is able to establish instant credibility with international students and student organizations. And she has quietly and patiently established a wide variety of student-driven programs.
"To IU's international students -- especially student leaders -- she is a mom, a cheerleader, a teacher, an organizer and sometimes a prodder," Schrader said. "IU is fortunate to have a position dedicated to international student life; and, at conferences, we often learn that Sandy's programs serve as a model for other institutions."
In 15 years at IU, Britton has seen marked change, including significant growth in international enrollment -- especially of students from East and South Asia. IU enrolled 6,401 international students in fall 2014; nearly half were from China, with South Korea ranking second and India third.
The constant, Britton said, is that her job remains challenging and rewarding.
"I like the opportunity that it provides, that I'm able to connect with so many students with so much energy and enthusiasm," she said. "When you're around young people, it makes you feel good."