The beauty of diversity

Commins uses passion for international world to help students

The Spectrum

Eric Commins, coordinator of student programs at the Office of International Student and Scholar Services, has always been good at learning other languages.

He studied French, Spanish and Chinese in school and his current role at UB has led him to teach himself Hindi, Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Persian, Malay, Tagalog, German and Turkish, "just to name a few."

He engulfs himself in learning other languages so that each time new international students arrive at UB, which is among the top 20 American institutions hosting international students, he has the ability to greet them in their own dialects.

"It's very rewarding to see a student's face light up with pleasant surprise when they know you're putting forth an effort to make them feel welcome," Commins said.

Commins is an international student adviser at UB, a school with approximately 5,200 students from other countries - the largest total number of international students in the university's history. International students now make up slightly more than 17 percent of enrolled students, up from 15.19 percent last year.

Commins organizes UB's bi-annual new international student orientation programs. In 2013, over 2,000 students attended and over 1,700 participated in the program's trips and activities. He and four other advisers help international students learn immigration rights and responsibilities, assist with transitioning to American life and help qualified students obtain off-campus work authorization.

Though Commins' job is to assist and change the lives of international students, he finds they mold his life in return.

He said some of the perks of working so closely with international students is staying up to date with world news and trying new cuisines. He said that natural disasters, civil wars and devaluation of currency are worldly events that affect UB's international student body.

"Sometimes, it really hits home, too," Commins said. "One of our former longtime graduate assistants is back home in the Middle East now in a very dangerous situation. His city was bombed recently."

Commins keeps in touch with international students via Facebook after they return to their home countries. He said social media is their main communication medium.

Commins also becomes family friends with some of the students. Almost every year, he and his wife invite some of the students he helps to share Thanksgiving dinner with them.

He believes anyone can learn a significant amount about his or herself by spending time with others who "are not homogeneous."

In graduate school, Commins lived with a student from Germany. He remembers trying to explain baseball to him and the difficulty and time it took to finally get through to his friend.

"The reality you grow up with and take for granted is so different from person to person," he said. "That's really what culture is all about."

Commins thinks International Admissions does an "incredible job" bringing bright students to Buffalo from all over the world. Most of UB's international students are from China, India, South Korea, Canada, Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam.

Commins said not every international student wants to mold into the American culture and that is OK. He hopes they experience certain aspects of American life for enhanced cultural understanding.

Commins coordinates trips in the program to show international students places off campus they may not visit on their own. For instance, students who have never seen snow can participate in winter activities like cross-country and downhill skiing, snowboarding, tubing and snowshoeing.

His office also helps pair new international students with American mentors for a more "personalized version of American culture" and the opportunity for domestic and international students to interact.

When Commins was a college student, he majored in international studies and economics at SUNY Cortland. Upon being paired with his roommate from Germany, he met many students from various countries.

"I was very impressed by the sacrifices they had to make to study here," he said. "I was equally impressed by their bravery to go so far from everything they knew for the purpose of getting an education."

The experience made him realize he wanted his career path to be in student affairs.

He traveled a lot with his family, to Mexico, Venezuela, Spain, England, Ireland, France and Canada, and he was exposed to many cultures at a young age. His fervor for language and culture never left him, and he loves that he can explore his passion for the international world at UB.

"Being able to help one student each day, as clich?(c) as that sounds, is the biggest reward I could ask for," Commins said. "Now that I'm a parent, I know that I would greatly appreciate someone looking out for my child, especially if she was so far from home."

He said he is lucky to be in a position where the world comes through his office's door every day.

Though he and his students look different, there are more aspects that illustrate the similarity of all humans, and that, Commins said, "unto itself, is the beauty of diversity."