Shuttle Diplomacy: Pitt’s OIS Greets International Students With New Airport Hospitality Service

Issue Date: 
August 22, 2007


Top photo: Pitt’s Elizabeth Leibach (left) greets Mohit Juneja from India, after his arrival at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Bottom photo: Bok-Gyo Jeong from South Korea (left) with Pitt’s Janine Fisher.

Just about anyone who’s entered Pittsburgh for the first time through the Fort Pitt Tunnels mentions the fantastic panoramic view of the city. Pitt graduate student Bok-Gyo Jeong, of South Korea, was no exception.

Riding from the airport on the Pitt Office of International Services’ (OIS) new airport shuttle service recently, Jeong exited the tunnels exclaiming, “It’s beautiful! Oh, the rivers!” Even though his driver had prepared him for the spectacle, Jeong said he was overwhelmed.

Pitt last month began offering personalized shuttle service from the Pittsburgh International Airport for its incoming international students, complete with airport volunteers greeting new arrivals at the gate and Pitt staff and volunteers waiting in the baggage area with snacks and bottled water.

OIS director David Bryan Clubb proposed the idea for the service to Janine S. Fisher, OIS assistant director for international programming and public relations; she coordinates the program with the help of George F. Kacenga, OIS assistant director for international admissions.

Last year, Clubb and his wife drove to the airport to greet a graduate student and her husband coming in from their native Lebanon. Clubb had been instrumental in helping the couple, who had been caught in a web of bureaucratic red tape and literally dodged bombs while traveling to get their papers in order and obtaining clearance to enter the United States. Clubb said it was gratifying to meet them at the airport and bring them to Oakland after their long ordeal.

That trip inspired the new shuttle service.

“It’s unusual for a school as large as Pitt to provide this service,” Clubb said. “We hope this will help to put students at ease and they will realize they can come to us when issues arise and ask for our advice.”

Pitt will welcome more than 400 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 50 foreign countries this fall. Not only can the international students take the shuttle, their family members also are welcome.

“One of our goals is to give students the best collegiate experience possible,” said Kacenga, who previously worked at a smaller school that had a similar service. “We want students to rely on OIS.”

While most international students coming to the University speak English well, arriving in Pittsburgh sometimes marks the first time they will be conversing with native English speakers, making that airport encounter so important.

Airport volunteers are the point people meeting newcomers at the gate.

“The airport personnel have been wonderful,” said Fisher. “They have provided us with volunteers who have worked with internationals before.”
Sattha Kohpisalsukwattana of Thailand was one of the first Pitt students to use the OIS shuttle service, in late July. He had been to Japan and China, but this was his first visit to the United States. After an 11-hour flight from Japan to Chicago, a three-hour layover, and a ride on what he called “a very small plane” from Chicago to Pittsburgh, Kohpisalsukwattana said, “It was a good feeling to have someone meet me at the gate.”
A graduate of Chulalongkorn University in Thailand with an undergraduate degree in engineering, Kohpisalsukwattana is pursuing an MBA from Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business

Most international students arriving in Pittsburgh have already been through U.S. Customs at their point of entry, typically a larger city such as New York or Los Angeles.

According to Clubb, the shuttle service has required an enormous logistical effort. Fisher sends her airport contact an e-mail providing arrival times for the students. She sends the students a confirmation e-mail and a contact phone number, telling students where the airport volunteer will be waiting. She also coordinates all the volunteer schedules.

Fisher said that the program has run smoothly and students have been very appreciative.

“I’ve never seen anyone more excited to get a bottle of water,” said Fisher of Kohpisalsukwattana.

As the central point of contact for the University’s international students, OIS works with Pitt student organizations as it seeks to connect newcomers with other international students who might offer assistance.

Among those student groups are Pitt’s Chinese Student and Scholar Association and ANKUR, the Indian graduate student group, which can arrange temporary housing for students in some instances. Some foreign students already have family or friends living here.

OIS expects that about 25 percent of Pitt’s new international students will use its shuttle service this fall.

Jeong, a student in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, praised the service.

“It was moving and touching and they [Janine Fisher and George Kacenga] made me feel comfortable,” said Jeong, adding that Pittsburgh’s rivers, buildings, and hills remind him of those in Seoul.

Jeong said, “I want to give a special thanks to Janine and George and OIS”—so much so, that he plans to serve as an OIS volunteer himself next year.