Attending college can be difficult. Attending college in a foreign place can be extremely difficult.
Veronica Whitt, who serves as the international students services specialist, knew the struggles personally when she came to ACU as a freshman from the Philippines in 2009.
Her parents were missionaries in the Philippines. Her father is from Texas and her mother is Fillipino. When she came to the U.S. to attend college, she came in as an American citizen. Her older sister, who was also attending ACU and a senior at the time, helped her to adjust.
Whitt said at first not many people recognized her as an international student because she came in on an American passport, and her student ID said she was from San Saba.
“It was a little bit tricky at first, knowing what my resources were, but I easily found that community and got plugged in pretty quickly,” Whitt said.
She quickly became a part of the officer team and served as a student leader in the International Students’ Association. The ISA provides students from other countries with a community that helps the transition into a new culture, connects them with people of the Abilene community they can go to for help and prepares them with certain resources needed to be successful in a new environment.
“If you’re thinking of your experience as a college student, you probably had your parents around to help you transition, but a lot of our international students don’t have a family when they get here,” Whitt said.
After Whitt graduated with a bachelor of science degree in family studies in 2012, she made the decision to stay in the U.S. instead of going back to the Philippines.
“Thankfully because I was an American citizen I had that option,” she said. “Most of our international students, if they are not continuing in school or if there’s not a company that will sponsor their work visa, then they have to go home.”
At first she remained working for Einstein’s Bagel Company on campus, where she had worked throughout her undergraduate studies. Then she found a job opening with Big Brothers Big Sisters under the AmeriCorps VISTA program and worked there for two years.
Halfway through working with Big Brothers Big Sisters, she decided to enroll in the Graduate School of Theology and Global Studies program. She received a full scholarship and began school again.
After finishing her second year working with Big Brothers Big Sisters, she was hired as a resident assistant at University Park Apartments. During this time, she resumed her job as a student worker in the Center for International Education.
“So that’s how I slowly got my foot in the door,” Whitt said. “Of course, they already knew me because my mentor was in the office and in the position that I’m in now.”
After three semesters of graduate school, she decided the program was not for her and withdrew. This decision, however, would require her to look for another area of work.
“If you’re not a student, you can’t work as an R.A.,” Whitt said. “So pulling out of the program meant also losing my job, but I thought I needed to, for my own sake.”
As she finished her term as an R.A., she began searching for other options.
“At this point, I was like, ‘Well it’s up to you God. I’m taking a leap of faith here and trusting that you’ll provide for something,’” Whitt said. “I was already prepared to go back to working in retail because sometimes you just can’t be picky.”
At the time, her supervisor at University Park Apartments, Angela Neal, came across a job posting in the Chapel office.
“She asked if I had looked at the position,” Whitt said. “I said yes, but I didn’t think I was qualified.”
“See, that’s the problem with us women,” Neal told Whitt. “We see something and then we don’t think we’re qualified, so we don’t even try. That’s why all the men get the jobs. Because they just go for it.”
With a pep-talk from Neal, Whitt applied for the job and was hired. It was her first job working full time for ACU. Shortly after, her former supervisor in the International Students Office decided to leave and find a job elsewhere.
“She had already been kind of grooming me, as her student worker, and training me,” Whitt said. “I think in her mind, she was already thinking of me as a possible person to take over once she decided to leave.”
The supervisor left in the middle of the school year, so the university was looking for someone to fill the position quickly and conveniently. Whitt was right there. This was the job she had been eyeing since her days in undergraduate.
“It was a very natural transition, but definitely a God thing,” Whitt said. “I remember specifically when I was a student leader looking at my mentor in this office thinking, ‘Man, she has the coolest job. I hope someday I can find a job like that.’”
She was hired as the coordinator of International Student Services in the spring of 2017. This is her third year working in the position.
“It’s special to be able to relate to [the international students] on that level of, ‘Hey, I’m not just saying these things because I read a book about it. I’ve experienced it too,’” Whitt said. “I get to give them hope and tell them, ‘It’s going to get better. It’s not all bad. You’ll be OK.’”
Her main role is to connect international students to resources on campus and help them to transition as a new college student and adjust to the culture.
In the summer, she begins communication with many of the incoming international students, making sure they are signed up for residence halls, meal plans and classes. She helps to coordinate their pick-up at the Abilene airport and takes them on Walmart trips to buy all the dormitory necessities to settle in.
Sofia Ramirez, president of the ISA, said Whitt made her feel secure in coming to ACU as an international student.
“Before coming to the states, you get into contact with Veronica and ask any questions about your itinerary,” Ramirez said. “Any questions, Veronica is your person to go to.”
Whitt helps direct a new student orientation for international students the Saturday after Wildcat Week to inform them of their resources on campus, where to find things they may be looking for, what to do in different scenarios and who to contact if needing help.
She tells them what to expect from American culture, explains certain classroom expectations and defines culture shock.
“I tell them, ‘Your experience here is going to be very different,’” Whitt said.
Takuma Tsuneki, junior English education major from Tokyo, Japan, and intern for the International Students Scholars Office, said Whitt is one of the first faces international students see when they get to the U.S. with only their suitcases.
“Veronica invited me to the chapels and certain sports nights that take place,” Tsuneki said. “I really got involved through Ethnos.”
Ethos is a cultural dance and performance event that takes place each year, in which students can volunteer to participate in acts representing different ethnicities.
Whitt also serves as an adviser for the International Students’ Association to hold cultural events and food festivals. Besides helping international students get a driver’s license, set up a bank account, find a job, get a Social Security number or set up a phone plan, she also takes time to invite them to her home and treat them as her own children.
“We call her our mom,” Ramirez said. “She cooks for us and takes us out. It’s not her job to be on top of everything, but she does it. She goes beyond her job.”