The Sky’s the Limit with OdysseyLife

By Blake Silberberg ‘13
University Communications

Did you have trouble adjusting to life on campus as a freshman? Well now there’s an app for that! University of Rochester undergraduates Keyu (Sky) Song ‘15 and Xiayan (Eric) Huan ’15 are the founders of OdysseyLife Inc., a self-funded startup with the goal of helping International students adjust to life on American college campuses.

Song, a political science major, entered the University as a Chinese international student. He chose Rochester because of the diverse student population and was excited to meet lots of new people from different cultural backgrounds. What he found was a gap among international students when it came to making friends with American students. “When I first arrived here, I talked to people in dining hall lines,” says Song, “I met a lot of people that way, but it was definitely awkward at times. As an international student, it can be hard to get a sense of what’s right or wrong to say to someone you’ve just met.”

Song’s experiences inspired him to find a way to help other students in his position adjust well to American college life. “The crucial period of adjustment is the first two months.  After that, it becomes much harder for international students to make friends, since a lot of students have already formed groups or circles,” says Song.

With the goal of helping international students bridge this gap, Song worked with fellow student Eric Huan to create OdysseyLife, a startup corporation that works with international students at the University of Rochester, and has expanded to New York University and SUNY Buffalo. Song describes OdysseyLife as a corporation with a focus on providing a mix of both nonprofit and for profit services. OdysseyLife offers numerous free resources, including an iPhone app, guides for social and professional situations, and weekly lectures on cultural differences open to both international and American students. OdysseyLife goes beyond these services by employing “captains” to serve as student mentors for international students who sign up for OdysseyLife. Captains are university students who teach weekly classes, bring students to networking events, and are available to meet with one on one to help with any situations that might arise during a semester. “The captains help demonstrate behavior and offer a theoretical framework for adjusting to American college life,” says Song, “and they act as both a model for the international students and a wingman in social situations.”

Huan (left) and Song (right) with Yuan Yue, the CEO at Horizon Consulting Group (Lingdian). Cornell China Forum 2014.
Huan (left) and Song (right) with Yuan Yue, the CEO at Horizon Consulting Group (Lingdian). Cornell China Forum 2014.

Creating the corporation proved to be an excellent learning experience for Song and Huan, as they had to navigate a large number of legal and technical aspects to form an official corporation. Song had to first obtain work-study sponsorship in order to legally work in the U.S., and without any law experience, this proved a difficult task. Song and Huan contacted law students at both Cornell and Harvard for help with their company, and also received support from David Primo, associate professor of political science and business administration, and Michael Rizzo, professor of economics. Huan and Song also worked with an accounting student at the Simon School, who helped them file insurance and tax forms, and other necessary corporate materials. The pair also received support from the staff at Wilson Commons, Office of Admissions, College Center for Advising Services, Center for Entrepreneurship, and International Services Office. “I think our experience forming OdysseyLife is a great example of how strong the interdisciplinary network is here,” says Song. “We were very fortunate to have access to so many resources, and this wouldn’t have been possible without the tremendous support of the University’s staff.”

In the future, Song and Huan hope to expand the services to American students as well, to help them connect in a greater capacity with International students. “We want to build a bridge that will help both American and International students use college campuses as a place where they can freely exchange ideas,” he explains.

If you are interested in learning more about OdysseyLife, you can visit the website or contact Sky Song directly via email.

Students Work to Add New Flags to Hirst Lounge

Univ. Communications – Hirst Lounge has been a central part of campus life since Wilson Commons was built in 1976. In the early 90s, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid made the decision to grow the international student population, specifically among undergraduates. An integral component of this initiative was the expansion of the flags hanging in Hirst Lounge, which was seen as an aesthetically pleasing way to showcase the diversity of the student body. The University quickly realized it was much more complex. Moments of controversy over flag placement helped the University become more cognizant of international politics, national rivalries, and religious differences.

Recently, five new flags have been added to Hirst Lounge. The flags were hung as the result of an initiative spearheaded by two students, Carlie Fishgold ’12 and Chris Bethmann ’13. Through their efforts, flags representing the Haudenosaunee, Diné (Navajo), Cherokee, Dakota- Sioux, and Muscogee Indigenous peoples are now hanging in the lounge. The addition of these flags is another step in the complex process of accurately portraying the diversity of the student body. Fishgold thinks that hanging the Native American flags, “sets an example by participating in the process of decolonization.” And as Bethmann points out, “Not many colleges recognize the sovereignty of Native American nations.”

The initial impetus for the project was provided by Bethmann. Working as a summer Meridian in the Admissions Office, he told tour groups that the flags were representative of the University’s entire student body. At some point he began asking why there were no flags representing the Native American students. Eventually he vocalized his question and was led to the International Student’s Office, where he was told that only students born outside the United States were represented in Hirst. Bethmann persisted, and after a series of emails, phone calls, and meetings, he was told that the flags would be hung and the policy amended to recognize Native students. When summer ended and Bethmann began a semester abroad in Spain, Fishgold, an Art History major, became involved and saw the project through in his absence.

“Many people don’t realize there are reservations nearby, let alone the living conditions and lifestyles on them,” says Naomi Lee, a Native American 5th year doctoral degree candidate in chemistry. “They’ve often forgot that we were the original inhabitants but much of our culture has been lost due to assimilation so … honoring us by exhibiting our flag is very important to me.”

The last major update to the flags occurred about a decade ago. Jennifer Behnke ’00, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music with an arts administration certificate from Eastman, was the president of the International Living Community, and recognized that Hirst needed updating when a student living on the floor was not represented. When Behnke contacted the International Student’s Office hoping to resolve the issue, she instead discovered the problem was far larger than she imagined. The ISO had received other complaints from students about flags that weren’t included in Hirst, but there was neither a process nor a budget available and so the problem went unresolved.

“A student from the newly independent Slovenia was very upset that his country’s flag had not been hung,” Behnke’s recalls. “He was especially angry because he had lost family and friends in the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Thus began a truly epic project. Behnke’s goal was to ensure that the University of Rochester recognized every student’s country of origin with a flag in Hirst Lounge. She spent two months pouring over a 500-page record of every international student at the University, compiled by the International Students Office. By cross-referencing each student’s home country against a list of countries whose flags were represented in Hirst, Behnke created her own list of flags that needed to be added. Behnke brought her list to the International Student’s Office, but again, funding threatened to stop her project’s completion. Behnke approached one of her professors, Dean Paul Burgett, who at that time, also served as Dean of Students. Burgett’s office agreed to supply the funding to cover both the cost of the flags and the installation.

In updating the flags in Hirst Lounge, Fishgold, Bethmann, and Behnke have given significantly to the campus community. Seeing their flags hanging in Hirst Lounge is vital, for varying reasons, to international students, who now make up 18 percent of the student population.

“Imagine going to another country and then seeing the American flag being raised or even flying after not having seen it for a while,” Bethmann says of the flags. “You feel a sense of pride for your heritage and country. In that way, those flags evoke the same feelings for Native students.”

Article written by Joshua Morse, a sophomore at the University of Rochester majoring in mechanical engineering. Photo courtesy of Joshua Morse.