Andrea Popa, Director of International Student Affairs
Emerson College | Boston, MA
At the beginning of a typical academic year, Andrea Popa is flat out. She works tirelessly to ensure international and exchange students have met their immigration requirements, their documents are in order when they reach Emerson’s campuses, and they are ready to begin the next chapter in their education.
But at Emerson, Popa’s job goes deeper.
The way Popa sees it, this special group of students needs all the support they can get once they arrive. They have already jumped through regulatory hoops at home and in the US, passed required language exams, and completed mounds of necessary paperwork before they even step foot in a classroom.
“It’s hard to get to the US [to study]. Someone who arrives here has shown some grit already. [International students] come with purpose and they want Emerson to provide a full experience to them,” she said.
Popa’s work is crucial to ensuring that their time at Emerson—from participating in campus clubs and organizations to preparing for post-graduation plans—is productive and enjoyable. In addition to immigration advising, her work involves collaborating with multiple student support offices, academic offices, English language learning, and student organizations, so that international students feel supported and can thrive at Emerson.
But that’s in a typical year, and 2020 has been anything but typical.
Not only was college interrupted this spring by the global pandemic, but international students also experienced a fallout that has been complex to manage: Their home countries enacted different requirements related to students’ returns, consulates closed, and many students did not see a clear path to continue their studies in the US or were concerned about returning based on a slow reaction to the crisis by the US government. In addition, Asian students were the recipients of a xenophobic backlash related to the pandemic by members of our society, including US government leaders, which continues to linger.
“It’s hard to get to the US [to study]. Someone who arrives here has shown some grit already.”
This was on top of a series of executive orders that started in 2017 with travel bans for some countries that were then retracted following legal challenges and, finally this summer, in addition to new travel bans, the US government attempted a strict new regulation that would have removed international students from the US altogether if they engaged in online study. In the end, that proposed rule was rescinded after a court challenge, but the threat of removal left international students stunned and panicked.
Popa and her staff work nonstop to help students rise above these obstacles and ease any anxiety they may feel—anxiety that was especially high during this traumatizing year.
“The hardest thing [about the job] is being the middle person between students and immigration rules—especially when [the rules] aren’t flexible enough to allow [students] to do what they want to. My hope is I can help them through the hurdles,” Popa said, adding that a simple but reassuring message, “we’ve got your back,” means a lot to international students.
Popa, who grew up in Portugal, first arrived in Boston for college. She worked in Romania after college, where she met her husband, before entering the international admission field. She later spent 16 years at Boston University in international student and scholar services prior to joining Emerson in 2018. Now established in the Walker Building, Popa is delighted that Emerson has expanded its international profile through admission efforts and the Global Portals program, and has embraced a collaborative approach to international student affairs.
“Emerson has really stepped up to say, ‘how can we support international students’…and own this as a college. It isn’t the job of one office,” she said.
Emerson continues to see steady growth in the international student population year over year—a marker that Popa, and the College, are succeeding in these efforts.
Photo by Derek Palmer