GVSU partners in IREX international student exchange program

GVL / Courtesy - Padnos International Center

GVL / Courtesy - Padnos International Center

Tylee Bush

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Grand Valley State University is actively pursuing opportunities to diversify its campus and give students a global perspective. As part of this initiative, each semester, GVSU will host international students sponsored through the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) student exchange program.

The IREX student exchange involves a network of universities across the globe that partner to allow students to experience a semester or a year of their education on a different campus in a different country. This program is funded by the U.S. Department of State, along with other initiatives, including the Fulbright scholarships, Institute of International Education and American Council on Education programs.

GVSU submits a bid to the IREX program, outlining the university’s unique offerings and the benefits a student receives from studying here, including career services, counseling, athletics, residence halls, versatile programs and more. Meanwhile, students in other countries across the globe apply through the U.S. Embassy office in their country to be a part of the exchange program. 

Once a fitting student has been paired with GVSU, they must apply and meet all standard academic requirements in order to be accepted. Upon acceptance, the student packs their bags and embarks on a journey that usually takes them around the world right here to GVSU’s Allendale Campus. Students either study for one semester or one full year at GVSU, with the Department of State sponsoring their expenses, including transportation, tuition, housing and books.

Kate Stoetzner, director of international student and scholar services at the Padnos International Center, becomes the exchange student’s liaison and mentor during their time here.

Stoetzner has been in her role since 2001 and has had the pleasure of welcoming and supporting countless IREX exchange students. She has seen students come through the program from a variety of nations, including Serbia, Morocco, Montenegro, Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Nepal, Libya, Honduras, Jordan, Yemen, Oman, Palestine and more. 

“We move around geographically and touch a lot of the programs,” Stoetzner said.

She has also witnessed some incredible success stories from these students and their experiences at GVSU. For example, a recent IREX exchange student was the first one to be sponsored from Uzbekistan. After his sponsored exchange year, he applied to return to GVSU to complete his bachelor’s degree. Following in his footsteps, his brother came to GVSU for his undergrad, and another one of his brothers and his cousin are currently enrolled at the university.

“That’s the best example of how this could work,” Stoetzner said. “We put the word out and somebody comes here, has a fabulous time and becomes an advocate.”

Stoetzner said GVSU doesn’t have a specific recruiter dedicated to the country of Uzbekistan, or many of the other countries in the IREX program, so sending a student back who had a positive experience at the university and can spread the word is a great benefit of being involved in this program. 

“We now have a trend of people in Uzbekistan who know about Grand Valley and have heard positive things about our campus,” she said.

Another IREX exchange program success story comes from Nepal. Stoetzner said the IREX program coordinator in Nepal is a disability rights advocate who looks for students who might not have a chance to go to the U.S. without this program. 

Stoetzner finds the IREX coordinator in Nepal’s work admirable. 

“I don’t know her, haven’t met her, but I think very highly of her,” she said.

Twice now she has sent Nepalese students to GVSU who were deaf. These students were enrolled at the University in Kathmandu, and without the IREX program, they might never have had an opportunity such as this.

“In many, many countries, if you have a disability, your opportunities are limited. There’s not a lot of support,” Stoetzner said. She is grateful that through IREX and GVSU, these students were able to receive exceptional care and experiences.  

These students have allowed for growth and expansion in GVSU’s capabilities as well. Faculty, administration and students alike all benefit from having these students in their classrooms.

Stoetzner said the students knew written English but spoke a different sign language, a communciation obstacle that had to be overcome. 

“It broke a lot of barriers for us at Grand Valley as we tried to support these students,” Stoetzner said.