Column | Sept. 30

Assimilation through total immersion?

In the middle of my first week of classes here at Princeton, I could finally take a breath. After the bombardment of information, presentations, activities and icebreakers that my two-week orientation experience entailed, starting classes felt ironically like a respite.

I left Tokyo and arrived at Princeton on Aug. 28, crossing the dateline and repeating a day as international students often do. Moving in was a blur of rain, golf carts, connecting to DormNet and wishing I could rely on more than the “puvisitor” wireless network on my Japanese phone to communicate with my parents back home.

After the International Orientation opening dinner and a long, 48-hour Aug. 28, I finally stumbled back to Bloomberg Hall only to find that a lonely silence permeated throughout campus, whose only inhabitants were varsity athletes and other international students. Already, I pondered the effectiveness of inviting international students to an essentially vacant campus early under the pretext of helping them to better assimilate to life in Princeton and the States. I wondered whether the two other international students in my otherwise empty hall were feeling equally alone and out of place.

What ensued was an accelerated course of what freshman week would entail for the rest of the freshman class. Presentations from the Department of Public Safety, McGraw Center, Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources & Education and the likes were more or less preview versions of the arguably more entertaining and substantial presentations that would occur during freshman orientation a mere week later. Granted, obtaining relevant information about life at Princeton in a smaller setting was valuable and appreciated by many; however, efforts to offer as much information as possible, as soon as possible, left international students without ample time to grapple with the sheer notion of being so far away from home.

Freshmen already exhausted from IO were then uprooted from campus, after having spent three nights in our dorms, for the Outdoor Action and Community Action trips. (As students weren’t allowed to stay on campus during this week, these trips were essentially mandatory for international students). Having begun to settle into my dorm, I was now longing for both my home in Tokyo and my new home on campus. Undoubtedly, I was enjoying the people I was with and the work I was doing. However, I wasn’t able to separate Community Action in my mind from IO. It was all a blur of non-routine unfamiliarity. For many students who had undergone IO and one of the pre-orientation trips, freshman week became yet another orientation to get through, as opposed to the official exciting beginning to my career at Princeton. It became almost a ritual for international students to, upon encountering another IO buddy, commiserate over the prospect of attending informational session number 14. Once the orientation frenzy was over, many students were overwhelmed by the onslaught of emotions — loneliness, homesickness, fear, anxiety, excitement — that they hadn’t had a chance to cope with until classes were about to begin.

As fantastic as my IO group leaders were, and as much as I enjoy running into people I met during orientation, it is difficult to say that the current structure of pre-orientation and orientation at Princeton meets the needs of students assimilating into a new environment, culture and country. I understand the reasoning behind packing every moment during a pre-orientation period with activities and plans; in a situation of total immersion, students will have no choice but to assimilate and no time to dwell on homesickness or the overwhelming novelty of everything around them. However, students were so busy doing one thing or another to actually appreciate the other opportunities and experiences IO offered.

I would urge future IO coordinators to take advantage of the smaller group setting that IO offers. IO groups served more of an organizational function than a community-building purpose; more time could be spent fostering relationships among IO leaders — who are, at least so far, the most welcoming and helpful upperclassmen I have met here at Princeton — and their groups, and less on learning technical information about Princeton that can be obtained later during freshman orientation. A greater focus on assimilating to culture and life in the States may be of more value than time spent on presenting information about Princeton; students enjoyed learning about life on campus a great deal more once all the freshmen were on campus for freshman week.

The potential for IO is great. I myself was enticed by the notion of entering Princeton with a smaller, close-knit group of people making the same transition I was. Though the group of students at IO was indeed small — comprised of a little more than 100 students — it never was as close-knit as I had imagined it could become. A shift in the goals of IO could give students a chance to start calling Princeton their home.

Jiyoon Kim is a freshman from Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at

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