Orientation leaders, in purple shirts, help Catherine Zhao ’26 with her luggage.
Photo: Julie Bonette
Student leaders at International Orientation helped 228 newcomers from 76 countries feel at home

At 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 23, pop music blasted from speakers outside the Lewis Center for the Arts, and a dancing, high-energy group of students wearing matching purple shirts greeted people, who, more often than not, approached with confused looks and lots of luggage.

It was the first day of International Orientation (IO), and for many of the 228 newcomers, who represent 76 countries, it was not only their first time on campus, but also in America, which can be overwhelming for anyone. But one by one, their expressions changed once they met with the 25 international upperclassmen selected to be Davis International Center (IC) leaders, who, with their colorful signs and enthusiastic hellos, spread an infectiously joyful mood.

“One of my favorite things from IO,” IC leader Ian Fridman ’25 told PAW, “is the welcoming.” Fridman, originally from Argentina, knows the long road many international students have taken to get to Princeton. “They are leaving behind their families, their country, to come to this place. And being able to say, ‘Welcome to Princeton,’ is really powerful. Just saying it again now gives me goosebumps.”

IC leader Mariana Icaza Diaz ’25 admits she was scared when she first came to Princeton from her home in Mexico, but said that “IO just gave me this sense of security, and the knowledge that I always have the international community to fall back on.” 

According to Davis IC Director Albert Rivera, the feeling is common. He said the first day of IO is “a quiet crowd for the most part,” but three days later, at the closing dinner, “you would probably not believe it’s the same group of students. By that point, they’re … engaging and connecting in a way that would not be possible, really, without the leaders. They’re sort of the glue.”

It’s a big job, and one the leaders take seriously. They’re selected in January after a rigorous application and interview process. Then, they help create and plan regular events for the Davis IC, like Sundaes Under the Stars, when the University’s international community is invited to eat ice cream outside and use telescopes to stargaze. 

But it’s not until summer that the leaders’ real work begins. That’s when they are put into pairs and assigned groups of around 15 new international students, whom they are tasked with getting to know via email even before the newcomers’ arrival. As a group, the leaders also plan the events of IO minute-by-minute alongside Mariyah Salem, assistant director for international programs at the Davis IC, who meets regularly with the leaders during the year.

During orientation, the leaders bond with their groups — which they continue to meet with during the fall semester — through icebreakers, a Q&A, and even a scavenger hunt. They also lead campus tours and shopping trips and put their acting chops on display in fan-favorite “USA 101,” a short skit that makes subtle jabs at American culture. Everyone laughed when an awestruck leader pretended to walk into Target, calling it “the promised land.” 

Most importantly, the leaders make the new students feel welcome, and while Agnes Robang ’23, this year’s senior coordinator, said that takes a lot of work, she also said IO is her favorite week of the year. While Davis IC staff certainly play a large role, she said, the leaders’ presence makes students feel “like you have an older brother or older sister who is speaking to you, rather than having a lecture orientation.”

Joanne Bateup Thomas, associate director for international students at the Davis IC, agrees. “It helps me sleep at night … knowing that there’s these students that are there to care for the international community, and do it in a way that goes beyond what our office could ever provide.”