Meet Vanderbilt's new director of International Student and Scholar Services.
interview by Joan Brasher
photo by Steve Green
Sherif Barsoum came to Vanderbilt as director of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) in August 2007 after serving 13 years as assistant director of the international office at Ohio State University. Originally from Cairo, Egypt, Barsoum has lived in the United States since age 10. He is a seasoned traveler and passionate about exploring new cultures. During the month of May, Barsoum will teach a religious studies class that will include a two-week excursion to Egypt.
VV: As director of the ISSS, what is your main responsibility?
SB: ISSS basically takes care of all the international students on campus. We have about 700 graduate students and 100 undergraduate students from about 88 countries. We make sure the students comply with all of the regulations for immigration. We make sure that students stay legal and are successful in completing their degrees in the time that immigration allows.
VV: What else does the ISSS do?
SB: We do a lot of cross-cultural programming, not only for the international students, but the university as a whole. We coordinate nine clubs that are ethnically based, and they do plenty of programming during the school year. We also coordinate the orientation process, which is different from the orientation American students get. This semester, we are planning an international film festival – called International Lens – with the Arts and Creative Engagement office.
VV: How is your work at Vanderbilt different than it was at Ohio State?
SB: At Ohio State, we had 4,000 international students from 136 countries. I saw probably 80 students a day in my office. Here, we might see a maximum of 10 a day. At Vanderbilt, we can provide a lot of services for students that you couldn’t at a larger institution. We have a very dedicated staff focused on giving the best service to international students. When we do a program, we can actually spend time with the students and talk to them about things.
VV: You mentioned the orientation process. How do you familiarize international students with Vanderbilt and America?
SB: A lot of times when students come to a new country, they don’t know the customs. One of the common things we tell them is that the food is not going to taste the same as it does in your country. If you are Chinese and you go to a Chinese restaurant here, it just isn’t going to taste anything like your mom’s home cooking. We talk to them about culture shock. The first week or two, they are very excited because they are starting a new program. But after two or three weeks, they begin to struggle with the language and relationships and the subtleties of the cultural dynamic. After two or three months, they begin to adjust and can function very well in this new environment, but it does take time.
VV: What are you most passionate about in regard to your work?
SB: Students. I just love being there for them. We always think of ISSS as their home base. If they have a problem, whatever it is, they can come to us. They can feel at home here. My other big passion is to expose Americans to anything international – such as seeing a movie from Pakistan or taking students abroad.
VV: As a seasoned traveler, what destinations do you love the most?
SB: I have traveled a lot and love Europe, but my passion is Africa. It is just an incredible place, from north to south, east to west. I already have been to many parts of Africa, but I would love to go to every country there. I have taken students there for nine years. I speak Arabic, French and English, and I also have picked up some Zulu.
VV: Are you a good traveler?
SB: Yeah – I pack light. I will try anything once. I have tried some interesting foods. Remember Pumbaa, the wart hog from The Lion King? I’ve had that. That’s probably the strangest thing I’ve tried. I’ve also tried kudu (South African antelope). It’s a wonderful steak. Of course, the best steak you could ever have is ostrich. It has no cholesterol. It is brown and tender, like veal parmesan.
VV: So, are you an international food connoisseur as well?
SB: Oh, yeah. Food is culture. Food is life. Food is how you get Americans and internationals together. One of the best things I have ever done in my life was to take students to Africa Café, a restaurant in Capetown. They serve 16 dishes from 16 African countries. It is a three-hour meal.
VV: Tell me about the class you will teach in May, which includes a two-week visit to Egypt.
SB: It is a religious studies class. We are going to talk about Islam and Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Christianity in Egypt. I am Coptic Orthodox Christian, but I have had a lot of exposure to Islam. Ninety percent of Egypt is Muslim. When we go to Egypt, we will experience all three major religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – within one mile of each other by visiting places of worship. We also will see museums and mummies and go inside a 5,000-year-old pyramid. We will go on a cruise on the Nile. We will have dinner with the Bedouins in the middle of the Sinai desert. We will climb Mt. Sinai where the Ten Commandments were handed down. The students will be exposed to a civilization that has been there for a couple thousand years.
VV: Why is it important for American students to learn about other cultures?
SB: It helps you learn so much about yourself. Leaving your comfort zone is the hardest part for most people – it doesn’t matter if you go to Canada or Mexico or Denmark or Africa. It is good to see other places because then you appreciate what you have, and you learn that it’s not just about America – it’s about the rest of the world, too.