As commencement approaches, our graduates reflect on their Willamette experience and share their plans for the future. This is the fifth of our five-part series.
Rachel Dierken ’13 has always known her purpose.
It’s why she’s worked as an international program assistant at Tokyo International University of America.
It’s why she studied in Estonia for a semester.
And it’s why she helped revive the Willamette International Student Union — giving international students a forum to express themselves and share their cultures.
After graduating this month, the Montana native will use her combined experiences in her new role as campus life coordinator at TIUA. There, she will help develop co-curricular activities, student leadership opportunities and intercultural education programming with students in the American Studies Program and Willamette’s College of Liberal Arts.
“Because I want to go into the campus and community programming side of international education, this job gives me excellent experience doing what I love and want to continue to do for the rest of my life,” Dierken says.
For as long as Dierken can remember, international exchange students have been a part of her world — joining her family for birthdays, shopping expeditions and dinners.
After enrolling at Willamette, Dierken investigated other ways she could learn about foreign cultures. She began by becoming an international program assistant at TIUA.
Through the job she worked for three years, she met exchange students from Tokyo International University in Japan.
“It’s so rewarding when the new students come in,” she says. “I’ve learned about their culture and new things about my own culture. It makes me think about myself and who I am.”
The quest for self-discovery continued the fall semester of her junior year when Dierken studied abroad in Tartu, Estonia.
Through her experience, Dierken learned Estonia has the largest folk music library in the world. It celebrated its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, and it’s the country where Skype was developed.
“I wanted to go to a really unconventional country, and I think I picked that pretty well,” Dierken says. “It’s so important to know people from other cultures and to celebrate and appreciate our differences.”
What made the experience special was the warm welcome she received from the local community, Dierken says. Through a support group for international students called ERASMUS, she learned the ins and outs of the city and made friends with people she would not have otherwise met.
“Just knowing that resource was there was so rewarding and so comforting,” she says.
Paying it Forward
Inspired by her time in Estonia, Dierken wanted to give back to international students attending Willamette.
She received her chance by helping to revive the Willamette International Student Association, a student-led organization that had been dormant for more than a decade.
Several ASP students started the process in 2009 by rewriting WISA’s constitution. Although Dierken helped coordinate a few campus events the following year, the organization didn’t fully take off until she returned from Estonia last spring.
That’s when WISA and another international club merged, Dierken was nominated as the organization’s co-president and the group changed its name to the Willamette International Student Union.
With her position, Dierken immersed herself in organizing everything from weekly meetings to cultural trips. She also helped launch the Bearcat Buddies program, which paired 18 international students with Willamette students during its first year.
Through WISU, international students began showcasing their country’s signature dishes at Zena Farm Club meetings. Members went on field trips to a Seattle Sounders soccer game and the Portland Saturday Market, and they joined Willamette students in the Willamette World Cup soccer tournament April 6 — an event co-hosted by the Willamette Events Board.
“With a new program, you are learning by fire,” Dierken says. “I’m trying different things, I’m talking to everybody I know. WISU’s purpose is to make sure international students have a really great time at Willamette.”
Huw Smith is one of WISU’s members. As an exchange student from Keele University in England, Smith says the organization relies heavily on Dierken’s leadership.
“Rachel is always coming up with new activities that our organization can pursue, and she encourages us to get involved with the Willamette community,” he says. “Rachel is WISU. Without her, it wouldn’t exist.”
Chris Andresen, associate director of Willamette’s Office of International Education, says Dierken’s zeal for international education is evident to all who know her.
“Rachel is good at communicating with people from a variety of backgrounds,” says Andresen, WISU’s faculty advisor. “I think international education is a field in which she could really thrive.”
Now that she’s graduating from Willamette with a degree in English literature, Dierken says she can’t help but remember the first time she visited campus five years ago.
She was two hours early for a tour, so she walked to Brown Field, bathed in the sunlight and fell asleep. When she awoke, Dierken knew her college search had ended.
“It sounds so cliché, but when I got here, I knew this was it,” Dierken says. “I didn’t apply any place else.”
To this day, Dierken is glad she trusted her instincts. At Willamette, she forged strong friendships, vastly improved her oral and written communication skills and learned the value of teamwork and leadership.
And now, with her new job as campus life coordinator at TIUA, she’ll use her skills to build an international community at Willamette — an opportunity she describes as a dream come true.
“My liberal arts education gave me a great foundation,” Dierken says. “I learned from people who are invested in me. I wouldn’t have received a better education anywhere else.”