Debra Anderson: Ensuring international students feel at home

By Karla Arboleda

While the safety, well-being and status of international students are some of the UF International Center’s top priorities, Debra Anderson wants them to feel that the University of Florida is their true home. During her 17 years as the director of International Student Services, Anderson has made it her personal mission to befriend students as soon as she meets them. And while that’s not an official responsibility, it is her personal mission.

Anderson is sincere, yet open-minded, and her genuine interest in playing a role in students’ lives is one of the administrator’s warmest traits. While completing F-1 forms, reporting to the federal government, obtaining travel signatures and maintaining GPAs can be challenging, Anderson says the stress international students face while assimilating into a new country could be their most daunting task.

“The main services we provide are immigration compliance,” Anderson said. “However, we work with many different departments on campus because everything impacts these students’ academics; and what impacts their academics could impact their immigration status.

“International students, exchange students and visitors play an important role in the advancement of UF’s research and teaching missions. Their presence is key to enhancing UF’s tradition of global learning. We are pleased to provide the services that make it possible for them to be here, and to do our best to create a welcoming environment during their stay on campus.”

One of the ways the International Center highlights UF’s diverse community is through its annual participation in International Education Week. Under the theme “Global Gators, Global Citizens…Global Goals!” International Education Week, a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education, will run Nov. 13-17.

Approximately 7,600 international students are enrolled at UF; about 400 of them are undergraduate students, while the remaining are masters and doctoral students. According to, “1,043,839 international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $32.8 billion and added more than 400,000 jobs to the U.S. economy during the 2015-2016 academic year.” In other words, international students across the country have made positive contributions while they are here in addition to sharing a range of cultures with us.

For the students who are spending their first four years away at college, the idea of establishing a sense of identity from something unknown motivates Anderson. She works to help ease stressors in any way she can, from treks to the Career Resource Center or the Counseling and Wellness Center—or wherever she feels they could find help.

“Think about coming here as an undergraduate to a whole new country with a different language and a different educational system,” Anderson said. “What are the services we provide? What are the services we are required to provide? What are the services that are needed and that should be provided?”

As part of the UF Gator International Focus Team (UFGIFT), a partnership between the International Center and the Counseling and Wellness Center, Anderson helps to provide workshops to attend to the unique needs of UF’s large and diverse international community. Through UFGIFT, international students may seek counseling for a variety of reasons including: prejudice and discrimination, navigating language and cultural barriers, adjusting to U.S. classroom culture, anxiety, academic difficulties and much more.

Anderson also serves as a member of the Student Financial Aid Committee to assist with financial concerns for students and the North Florida Fulbright Association Board to plan activities for visiting Fulbright students and scholars. In addition, she is a member of the Fulbright Lecture Committee and a co-advisor for the International Graduate Students Advisory Board.

With recently issued government travel bans on countries including Iran and Venezuela, certain situations for international students could become more difficult to maneuver. Maintaining status and following immigration laws are more crucial than ever for the UF international community. International students enrich the UF campus with their cultural diversity, and their presence serves as visible encouragement to about 12 percent of domestic UF students who study abroad every year.

Beyond the legal considerations necessary to maintain an exemplary institution, the University of Florida International Center and International Student Services wants to be a model for trust. UF welcomes people of any religion, race, color, ethnicity and orientation, and strives to provide the care that students deserve in a time period of their lives which could prove to be most challenging.