From the outside, the envelopes fanned across the table, each with a single name carefully written on the front, look like they might contain a happy birthday wish, “congratulations on your new job” or any number of other generic greeting-card sentiments.
The contents of these cards, however, are anything but ordinary. Within each of the 161 envelopes — one for every international student currently enrolled at Illinois Wesleyan University — is a personal message of support, encouragement and caring from an IWU alum those students have never even met.
The card-writing campaign was conceived by Vera (Leopold) Miller (Class of 2005) after the January executive order halting all refugee admissions and temporarily banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries. A Chicago Tribune story detailing how Illinois universities were responding prompted Miller to wonder if any students from the countries most affected were enrolled at IWU in Bloomington, Illinois.
“One of my closest friends from freshman year to this day is Mariano Lizano, who is from Costa Rica,” Miller said. “The thought that international and Muslim students at IWU might be feeling anxious, uncertain and even unwelcome in this country was terrible.”
After contacting alumni friends, former professors, IWU’s International Office, and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Miller and several friends came up with the idea of one-to-one cards or letters as a way to support the University’s international students.
“It was so concrete and felt like a way to make a meaningful, personal connection,” she recalled. “We also remembered how exciting it was when we got mail as students!”
International students were surprised and pleased to get caring cards from alumni. (Illinois Wesleyan University)
Miller contacted her alumni friends via Facebook, who in turn invited other Titan connections, until eventually 25 alums — several whom Miller had not known previously — wrote cards. Each alum chose students based on his or her major, country of origin, or some other commonality.
“I and so many of my fellow alumni really value you and the contribution that you make to the Illinois Wesleyan family.”
Miller said the core alumni group determined early on not to make their messages political.
“It was really about sharing encouraging messages with the students and letting them know they were supported and valued,” she said.
Four alumni gathered at the Downers Grove, Illinois, home Miller shares with her husband, David Miller (another 2005 IWU graduate), for a letter‑writing party, complete with music by singer-songwriter Ari Hest, who performed several times at IWU while the six were students. They shared real-time photos of themselves on Facebook with other alums who were writing notes from their homes at the same time.
“It gave us a chance to reconnect with each other and those great memories we made at IWU,” Miller said. “I felt so proud to be a Titan that night.”
Some alumni used their study abroad experiences to select students to write to. Others were influenced by a language they had studied at IWU.
“I saw cards that included greetings in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese — and one drawing of the Chilean flag,” Miller noted. “Some expressed that we had met lifelong friends at IWU and hoped they had also made those great connections.”
She said many alumni also described how the presence of international students on campus and in their classrooms had enriched their college experiences and broadened their view of the world.
“I really admire that you have traveled to a different country to pursue your studies.”
Miller collected all the cards and FedExed them to Illinois Wesleyan. International Student and Scholar Advisor Robyn Walter invited the students to drop by the International Office, where a special delivery was waiting.
“I wish you could see the students’ faces as they read the cards they’re receiving,” Walter wrote in an email to campus administrators. “As you can imagine, some are more animated, while others contain their emotions, but they all communicate their appreciation of such thoughtfulness by the alumni.”
Linh Le (Class of 2019) was among the first students to open a card.
“I was surprised to see the letter and thankful that an alumna took the time to get to know who I am before writing the letter,” said Le, a native of Hanoi, Vietnam, double majoring in educational studies and psychology. “I felt connected to her through her writing about her personal experiences with IWU and her aspirations, even though we have never met.
“The attention and support from this letter really assured me that I am warmly welcomed and appreciated here at IWU.”
Campus leader Ojaswee Shrestha ’(Class of 2018) is an environmental studies major with a concentration in ecology.
“I felt very humbled to receive the letter,” said the native of Nepal. “I teared up a little bit — happy tears! People taking their time to write nice things to us, tells me that they care about us and that our group of international students are strongly united together.”
“You make IWU a better university and experience for all students”
Matthew Kim (Class of 2020) noted that going to college in America has been truly a challenge, even though he had attended high school in Georgia for two years.
“On the way to the finish line of my first year at IWU, an unexpected, sincere letter would be very meaningful and one more big support for me,” he said.
Shaanxi, China, native Xiaoqian (Caroline) Wang (Class of 2017), is double majoring in accounting and mathematics. As she nears the end of her time on campus, said that, as a senior, “there are many ways to choose, which makes me feel kind of confused these days. But this letter really gives me power to pursue my dream.”
From Illinois Wesleyan University News