Pitt helps foreign students settle in

Help with rides, luggage-hauling meant to calm jet-lagged overseas flyers

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Chao Ma, a Chinese national planning to study at the University of Pittsburgh, looked a bit chagrined as he stood in airport baggage claim after a 22-hour flight.

"My parents insisted I should come with as much as possible, but in my opinion, everything that can be found in China can be found here," he said.

Judging from the bulky luggage sticking out of his cart -- stuffed with everything from pens to a computer -- it was obvious who had won the argument back home in Beijing.

It was also clear that the university's new airport welcome contingent was about to do a little more heavy lifting in the name of hospitality.

Under an initiative likely to strain a few backs, Pitt has begun offering all of its new foreign students who fly into Pittsburgh International Airport a free ride to the Oakland campus -- and help with even the most overstuffed bags.

College-sponsored ride services for foreign students are not unheard of, but they are more common at smaller schools with fewer overseas students than the 1,700 who come from 100-plus nations to attend Pitt, including 530 eligible for the ride service because it's their first trip to Pittsburgh.

The effort this month has turned the university's office of international services into something resembling a taxi service. Its 16 staffers are getting a dizzying lesson in airport schedules and flight delays as they strive to be waiting day or night in baggage claim whenever a student who has applied for a ride shows up.

As of this week, 115 students had requested the service, and two or three more do so each day as fall classes approach. The students arrive as early as 6:15 a.m. on the red eye and as late as flights approaching midnight, looking excited if somewhat drained by trips that can span 30 hours or more from Asia or Africa.

Janine Fisher, an assistant director in the office, herself has made 15 airport runs since the program's debut, sometimes three a day. On one trip alone, she ferried a family from Pakistan, an Indian student, a husband and wife from Finland and a student from China.

"There must have been 20 pieces of luggage. We put them all in a van and brought them to Pitt," she said. "You could say I've gotten pretty good at driving a 15-passenger van."

David Clubb, director of the international services office, got the idea last August while helping a doctoral candidate and her husband arrange travel to Pitt as fighting raged in their native Lebanon. He drove to the airport to meet them, and -- seeing their faces and hearing about their ordeal -- gained a perspective that campus administrators don't always get of what it's like to arrive as a foreigner in America.

"That experience made me think, 'Why aren't we doing it for everybody?' " said Mr. Clubb. "Not only because it's good for them, but because it's a good experience for us to get into the shoes of these people."

Sure, they could board a Port Authority bus or an airport taxi. But imagine lugging oversized bags through unfamiliar public transit while fending off jet lag and wondering what strangers mean when they say "Yinz" or "Get Aht."

Before traveling, international students often face a drawn-out visa approval process. They arrive with varying degrees of English proficiency in a nation that does not provide frequent transit to outlying communities, said Danuta Majchrowicz, director of international programs and services for Allegheny College.

That's one reason why her school, two hours away from Pittsburgh, will use student volunteers as it has in years past to shuttle an expected 19 new international students on their first trip to the campus of 2,100 students in Meadville.

Another rural school, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, offers bus service for a fee.

In Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University has almost 2,700 international students, including 1,000 new arrivals, spokesman Ken Walters said. Though there is no formal school-sponsored service, rides are sometimes arranged informally by student organizations or departments.

Duquesne University uses community volunteers, staff and students to offer rides to its foreign students.

Stepping off an American Eagle flight, Hong Zhang, 25, of Xinghua, China, looked amused by the attention as she wheeled her carry-on to a baggage-claim table labeled "University of Pittsburgh International Pick-up." Water and snacks were waiting, and eventually, the woman seeking a Ph.D in chemistry got help loading her bags into the Pitt van.

For Mr. Ma, 22, who is seeking a doctoral degree in computational biology, the ride to campus meant one less detail to worry about on his first-ever flight. The trip spanned 22 hours, including a seven-hour layover in Los Angeles, though he seemed no worse for wear.

"I'm not very tired," he said, smiling. "I'm excited."

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette photos
Chinese student Hong Zhang, left, 25, is greeted by Airport Ambassador Ute Waymire as she arrives via Dallas for graduate studies in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
Click photo for larger image.
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Hong Zhang, left, gets help with her luggage from Airport Ambassador David Clubb.
Click photo for larger image.

Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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