Flyby Everywhere: First-Year International Program

By Andrew T. Nickerson

Even before the pandemic began, being an international student has always been challenging. America is already weird to Americans. Imagine what it feels like for international students to suddenly have to worry about sales tax, Fahrenheit, as well as the Boston accent *shudder*. Thankfully, for the 12.2 percent of students admitted to Harvard every year who are from abroad, the First-Year International Program is here to help. Flyby chatted with Yousuf A. Bakshi ’23, FIP’s pre-orientation co-director, about all his best FIP mems & advice.

ATQH: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of FIP?

YAB: FIP has existed for many, many, many years now. It’s been one of the most pivotal pre-orientation programs at Harvard. It helps acclimate all these international students to a brand new country and a brand new campus, basically. It’s one of the OG, one of the big dogs. We have a very large cohort every year of around 150 international students who are so eager and excited to join not only campus, but to join a new international community on campus.

They’ll be joined by 45 student leaders who are so excited, motivated, and determined to make those students’ journey to Harvard an amazing success. Not only do we help with setting up a cell phone or bank account, but we also do really fun events where we introduce them to American culture. So we teach them how to do different American dances or we teach them how to acclimate to America, while also learning more about Harvard’s culture and learning how to be their best selves at Harvard. Many of the academic programs at Harvard are very different from what they are used to back home, so we will help with the transition to a new education curriculum, a new working environment, a new way of life on campus. That’s why it’s an amazing program, because FIP will really help you with your transition to Harvard and your transition to a new country.

ATQH: How and why did you get involved in FIP originally as a pre-frosh? Is there an application process for students who want to choose FIP as their pre-orientation experience?

YAB: So, when I first got accepted to Harvard, the first thing I did was look at the FIP website. I was very excited but also was very nervous about moving to a new country, so I wanted to see if there’s anything available for international students before I made the commitment to move to Harvard and moved to a new country. FIP was the first resource that I saw. I was probably a bit too eager. Like the day after the acceptance, I looked at the FIP website and went through all of the FIP leaders’ bios, read all about FIP. I even sent an email to FIP leaders asking “How do I apply to FIP?” and they told me that registration would open in May, so around six months after I got in.

And it would be the same thing this year for FIP registration. FIP is actually not an application and just a registration. So every international student or a student who is from the US but lives overseas will receive an email, and that email will tell them that they have been invited to FIP and registration will open in the summer. And in August, you will be put into your families and FIP will begin! It’s a very, very fun experience, and it all begins in the summer when registration opens.

ATQH: Whoa, you don’t need to apply for FIP? That is so nice.

YAB: Yeah, we believe that international students should take FIP and I mean, we don’t want to put any barriers in their way. So we just want to know exactly who they are when they register and then if they’re international students then yeah, they’re gonna get FIP. FIP is for every international-experienced student, so we encourage them all to come.

ATQH: How long is FIP?

YAB: We don’t exactly know how it would be this year as we’re still planning it, but typically FIP has always been four days — but last year, it turned into two weeks! We’re definitely going to have a longer program, we’re not gonna have four days anymore, because we feel like it’s not enough honestly to acclimate to Harvard in four days. So we’re going to try to get a longer FIP period because we found it to be much more fun, encouraging, exciting, motivating to have a longer experience. We haven’t planned exactly for this year just quite yet, but expect it to be as great as ever.

Actually, last year before Covid struck, FIP was actually given the go-ahead to be longer! So we were going to have a week of FIP in the dorms, and that was gonna be the longest FIP we’ve ever done on campus as well. So that was gonna be really exciting. But unfortunately Covid struck, and it became two weeks… but those weeks were online. So we had to balance out the time to make sure that each day wasn’t as draining on Zoom.

ATQH: What do you think is the impact of FIP on international students, both in typical year and during a virtual experience?

YAB: So, in a typical year, FIP provides international students with the fundamental information for a happy, successful start at Harvard, which includes sessions and discussions about American culture, immigration, and academics in the US and at Harvard. So it really helps them to get to know what it’s like to actually be here and how to socialize with American before actually socializing with Americans because of the many different quirks and things Americans do that might weird international students out. So we make sure that they know all the acronyms, all the slang words, and also how to properly interact and how to be their best self academically. So that’s what FIP typically does: it creates a community where they can get to know how to be their best selves on campus.

This last year, FIP’s meaning took on a whole new level when international students weren’t allowed on campus — because they were the only cohort of students who are basically barred from entering America, let alone campus, they were very excluded. We could see that many of the Class of 2024 were making friendship groups without international students included because they weren’t on campus, and a lot of international students felt left out and didn’t feel like they had a place because they weren’t allowed on campus. So FIP’s meaning took on a whole different level because FIP provided all these international students who felt excluded with a community of themselves where they can interact and socialize with people who are in the exact same position as them. Because of the amazing, wonderful leadership of the FIP leaders and the collaborative environment that FIP was, that was one of the biggest parts of FIP 2020: getting us this community so they could prosper outside of FIP.

ATQH: What are some of the events that FIP does during the school year to make sure that the connections between FIPpers remain?

YAB: So one of the biggest things that happen is your FIP family will have reunions all the time. I remember my freshman year, we always hung out with our leaders in their dorms and we had a great time. Once every month, we had FIP dinners and then online we had FIP reunion Zoom calls, so it’s been a really great way to keep in contact, get to know how they’re doing and how they’re progressing. FIP-wide, we have a big reunion event mid-year where every FIPper comes back together to see the rest of FIP and all the leaders are there to congratulate them on completing their first semester and see how everybody is doing.

FIP doesn’t end after the one week of pre-orientation. FIP is the experience. FIP is your first year at Harvard. FIP is your community. It transcends the week of pre-orientation beyond your wildest imagination, because it’s like you have a home for the year. And not even just a year though because many, many FIPpers then go on to be FIP leaders, because they want to give back to this amazing community and they want to help new international students succeed. So for me, FIP has been a part of my life for the past two years now. It’s not a week, it’s a lifestyle.

And for the Class of 2024, when they come back to campus, we’re setting up a new semi-orientation to help those 2024 students acclimate to campus because they’ve never been. So FIP will happen again for them in a different way. So FIP always exists on some levels and some capacity throughout the year, and Covid has and will not change that. There’s always a community to help you.

ATQH: Do you have any fun memories of FIP?

YAB: I would say my best and funniest moment of FIP was meeting my FIP family… We had a massive dance competition at 10 p.m. in Eliot courtyard where we’d dance to the end — each family presented their dances, and it was so funny because we’d see one team did the Anaconda and were twerking like there was no tomorrow, and another team did the worm. And then our team, we did just such funny dances and it was just so funny seeing every team make a fool of themselves in front of everybody because it shows we’re all so comfortable being here and being together in this community and just showing our funny sides off. And that was a moment that struck me because I was like, “Wow, this really is my community at Harvard. This really would be my home and we’re so open with each other.”

And for last year, I really enjoyed the coffee chats because we’re able to connect one-on-one with every single student. Each FIPper was able to connect with another FIPper and have a coffee chat together where they got to ask further questions to get to know each other, which is this really cool way to get on a deeper level and loads of connections were made that way. I remember making such funny connections and really deep, heartfelt connections. Yeah, it was just a really fulfilling experience and that’s something I definitely want to see again this year because we never did that before. We did it last year and it was so fulfilling, rewarding, and amazing to hear everybody’s stories and it’s a moment that really struck me last year.

ATQH: Describe FIP in three words.

YAB: Exhilarating, transformative, and community-building.

ATQH: Which Harvard House do you think embodies the spirit of FIP the most?

YAB: I would say FIP represents the Quad because we are different to American students, so we don’t have the shared experiences that many of the River Houses have — we don’t really interact with American students like that, we haven’t gone through their experiences… so we might feel distant from American students. But yet because of that, we’ve built a community within ourselves — we have our own international community, which is so powerful and so great because we get to know each other on a much more personal level, and it’s such a friendly and warm community like the Quad, where everyone knows each other. And I would say that really embodies the spirit of FIP, because we are so connected to each other as international students.

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