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International Students Flock to Berkeley for Summer Classes

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
Posted July 14, 1999

Photo: Deborah Tatto

Deborah Tatto, Summer Sessions coordinator for international student services, keeps a world atlas handy. Peg Skorpinski photo.

Each summer, more than 1,000 international students trek across the globe to attend classes at Berkeley.

For three years, Deborah Tatto, Summer Sessions coordinator for international student services, has done much more than just enroll and register these students; she's also been their advisor, counselor, travel agent and friend.

"To thousands of international students, Deborah is the university," says Gary Penders, Summer Sessions director.

Getting overseas students to Berkeley is often half the battle for Tatto. She frequently consults an atlas in her tiny office and calms students' fears with phone calls, e-mails, faxes and even old-fashioned letters. She speaks only English but breaks through language barriers by listening patiently and speaking slowly, avoiding slang and acronyms.

To assist a prospective Nepalese student who had no phone, e-mail or other means of quick communication, Tatto shuttled information through the student's Bay Area relatives.

One student made it to the United States only to be stopped by immigration officials at the San Francisco airport. She had mistakenly arrived with a tourist instead of a student visa. "We immediately dispatched someone to go over there and straighten things out," recalls Tatto.

Sometimes all Tatto can do is cross her fingers.

In the midst of political upheaval in Indonesia, one student trying to get her student visa at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta was trapped for three days inside the building, which was under attack.

Once in Berkeley, students approach Tatto with questions on local customs, what kind of clothes to wear, how to rent a car, safety issues, roommate problems and academic advising. Some just want a friend.

A Taiwanese student, unfamiliar with credit cards or travelers checks, brought $2,000 in cash with her to Berkeley, which was promptly stolen. Tatto helped contact her family to get the money replaced and gave her some helpful tips on preventing theft.

A German student showed up at Tatto's office with suitcases in tow, distraught because the campus residence halls were full and he had no place to live. She referred him to a privately-run facility just off campus.

Tatto provides wardrobe tips for students expecting balmy weather and sun-baked beaches -- many are dismayed when she warns them of the Bay Area's chilly summer fog and frigid ocean waters.

Students also ask Tatto for advice on how to deal with Berkeley's homeless people and panhandlers. "I tell them that if they want to give money they can, but they don't have to," says Tatto. "I let them know that the street folk around here are pretty harmless."

One of the biggest culture shocks for many international students, says Tatto, is the ban on smoking in restaurants, clubs, administrative buildings and residence halls. Here, she advises them, the only safe place to light up is outdoors, and even then you may get scowls.

Although international students flock to UC Berkeley primarily for the chance to study for the summer at one of the world's premier universities, Tatto is glad she also can help them understand and enjoy the American experience.

Several students have thanked Tatto with gifts from their native countries. She's received Dutch chocolate, Italian perfume, Danish crystal and a delicate wood carving from Indonesia, which hangs in her cubicle.


July 14 - August 17, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 1)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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