International students finding home away from home at Penn State Hazleton
Faculty dedication, staff support and key resources are helping a group of Penn State Hazleton international students succeed as they adjust to college and a new country.
HAZLETON, Pa. — Far from the familiar places where they grew up, a group of international students are finding a home away from home at Penn State Hazleton.
First-year students Lory Large Castro from the Dominican Republic, Mrinal “Myra” Sontakke and Shreyas Sudhakar from India, and Mark Lee from Taiwan, are in their second semesters at Penn State Hazleton, where resources, support and engagement opportunities are providing a smooth transition to not only a new country, but life as a college student.
The four are a part of what is one of Penn State’s largest international student populations in recent years. Current students also hail from China, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Peru, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.
“Penn State Hazleton takes great pride in being a diverse, inclusive and welcoming community for students from all over the world,” Director of Student Services and Engagement Tracy Garnick said. “By maintaining and supporting a robust international student population, we can facilitate a global mindset in our student body while promoting the value of different cultural perspectives.”
Aided in that effort by faculty dedication, staff support and resources like the Center for Multicultural Engagement, a dedicated space in the lower level of the Charles T. Butler Teaching and Learning Resource Center for cultural events and activities, international students can gain a sense of belonging and support as they begin their college careers, Garnick said.
‘There for you’
At Lycée Français de Saint Domingue, a French international high school in the Dominican Republic, Lory Large Castro’s typical school day lasted from 7:30 a.m. to 5:10 p.m. Returning home around 7 p.m., she would often reopen her books and dive into that night’s homework.
While the structure made her well-prepared for the demands of college, it was the smaller differences that turned out to be her first challenge at Penn State Hazleton. Numbers and other figures were written differently than she was used to, and the adjustment was a big hurdle that often required extra work, particularly in math.
Luckily, Castro had help from the start. Her math teacher, Associate Teaching Professor of Mathematics Gina Monks, worked with Castro until she was comfortable with the work.
“She’s always there to help me when I need help,” said Castro, a business major.
Paying the help from Monks forward, Castro often spends time in the Math Dimension, a peer tutoring center located in the lower level of the Mary M. and Bertil E. Lofstrom Library, where she volunteers to tutor other students in need.
Castro said her experiences at Penn State Hazleton were welcoming from the start, thanks in large part to the attentiveness of faculty.
“Everyone is so positive and joyful, it makes me want to keep going and not give up,” she said.
Drawn to its scenic setting, convenient layout and close-knit campus community, Myra Sontakke quickly found herself comfortable at Penn State Hazleton.
An added bonus was being close to her parents’ home in the Lehigh Valley, said Sontakke, a computer engineering major who grew up in India.
“We talk on the phone every single day, but they can also visit me here or I can visit them back home,” she said.
In her first few weeks on campus, Sontakke said she was surprised at how accessible faculty and staff were. Whether it was meeting during office hours or after class, Sontakke always got an answer to a question or received the help she needed, she said.
“People are very welcoming and if you need help, you have so many resources here to help you,” Sontakke said.
Meeting new people was almost just as easy, she said.
“When you first get to campus, you never have to feel like you’re alone, like you’re the only international student,” she said. “Talk to your adviser. Talk with the staff. They’ll connect you with more international students.”
Sontakke’s experiences getting to know fellow international students played a big role in her involvement, she said. She joined the Science and Engineering Club, volunteers as a tutor and serves as treasurer of the Multicultural Club, a student-founded club formed in 2023 that promotes different cultures through education, events and activities. The group shares a “Recipe of the Week” with the campus community and holds celebrations of holidays like Diwali.
“Don’t be scared to talk to people,” she said. “Talk to your professors or adviser if you’re struggling or just talk to people in general. It’s great for networking and to get to know each other.”
‘Fascinating for me’
Mark Lee is pursuing a master’s degree in engineering science and mechanics, an accelerated master’s program through Penn State’s College of Engineering. With that goal in mind, Lee took advantage of the opportunity to perform undergraduate research early in his college career.
Alongside Associate Professor of Engineering Joseph Ranalli, Lee helped train artificial intelligence (AI) to recognize solar panels. Lee labeled photos of the panels then fed the files to the AI model, a method made possible after Ranalli helped Lee modify his computer.
“It’s fascinating for me,” Lee said. “I’m doing something I’ve never done before, or only seen in videos, and I’m actually understanding it because I have someone who can guide me through all the technicalities.”
In addition to his engineering knowledge, Lee said he appreciated Ranalli’s relatability and encouragement.
“He gave me a lot of advice and motivation to keep working on math problems I’d been struggling with,” he said, noting that Ranalli would often share his own experiences as an undergraduate student.
Outside the classroom, Lee makes it a point to get involved he said. He is a physics tutor, vice president of residence hall association, and member of the Multicultural Club.
‘Community of trust’
Despite initial nerves about being in a new country, Shreyas Sudhakar found comfort in clubs and organizations at Penn State Hazleton.
A business major from India, the Business Club and Multicultural Club proved to be natural fits for his interests.
At the same time, he met like-minded people that helped ease his adjustment to the United States and his first year as a college student.
“In these clubs, you have a community of trust,” Sudhakar said. “You have a safe space where you can find people you can relate to and who can relate to you.”
Sudhakar said his advice to international students who may be considering Penn State Hazleton is to not stress over any learning curves they might encounter.
“It’s going to go uphill,” he said. “Stick with what you know, and you will make it through.”
To further ensure a smooth transition for international students, Kirsten Kostelnik was hired as coordinator of international student services in 2023.
In her role, Kostelnik assists international students with questions or concerns related to campus living, global paperwork, academics, travel details, gaining work status on campus, coordinating special events and many other experiences they desire as college students.
"Working with the international students at Penn State Hazleton has been very rewarding for me,” Kostelnik said. “I enjoy being able to learn from each of them in different ways and helping them to navigate what they want their college experience to look like. I know every day when I come to my office that I do work worth doing, and these students make me feel proud to be a part of this University."
Students said Kostelnik has been invaluable as a liaison between them and the campus, tending to needs that can sometimes come up in a moment’s notice.
“Kirsten is amazing,” Lee said. “She coordinated travel assistance and helped me find out about getting a Social Security card.”
Similarly, Kostelnik helped Sudhakar apply for a job in Highacres Café, the campus dining hall, and helped him arrange a bus trip to visit family in New Jersey.
“She’s always been there for me, and I know I can always go to her if I need anything,” he said.