'Compass' for international students, Clark now turns to new role

Ask Ninghui Yu about Tennessee Technological University's director of International Affairs, and the Chinese student leans forward and animatedly launches into a spate of stories, some about friends and others about students who were at the university before he arrived.

There was Ravi from Malaysia who was burned in an accident and threatened with a $50,000 medical bill. Another friend lost her ATM card, one she had written the security number on, and found her accounts were being drained of funds.

Then there was the student, hurt in a car wreck, who needed home care after hospitalization. In each instance, it was an international student, in trouble and far from home and family. And in each incident, it was Jo Anne Clark who came to the rescue.

For more than a quarter century, Clark has served by turn as a cultural compass, enforcer of laws and welcoming guide to hundreds of international students at Tennessee Tech. Now the administrator is taking another turn, one she says that will enable her to achieve several goals she holds for herself: among them, international travel, relaxation and reading books for pleasure.

Clark retires from the university August 30, bringing to a close 27 years of service. Students and associates say she will be missed. "She knows everything and everyone," Yu said. "Dr. Clark brings a great deal of diligence to her work. She does things right for everyone and treats students as individuals."

As president of the Chinese Student Association, Yu says he has witnessed Clark's attention to detail and commitment to students. "Immigration laws are complex and must be applied very thoughtfully. Dr. Clark works with students and departments to make sure they understand the laws and regulations. In my department, the secretary knows a lot of the laws, and I think it's because of Dr. Clark. She's had that impact across the campus."

It was student concern that led to the establishment of Clark's office. In 1969, the first Indian student was elected to the then-Associated Student Body Senate. The first bill passed that session was a request to have an employee designated to assist international students. Clark had just returned from two years in Germany and seemed a natural for the work, so the responsibility of advising international students was tacked on to her tasks as assistant dean for women and cheerleader sponsor. It was an assignment that suited her well, Clark says, in spite of the challenge of juggling three sets of responsibilities and reporting to three different supervisors.

While most university members know her for her work with internationals -- the responsibility that gradually overtook her other duties -- Clark made substantive contributions in other areas of student service. She developed Tennessee TechUs first training programs for residence hall staff, residence hall student officers and student services staff. She established the first student orientation leadership program, edited the student handbook and served as liaison to the campus ministers association. And, along the way, she devoted weekends and midnight stretches to advancing her own education, earning a masterUs and doctorate in public administration through a pioneering campus-without-walls program offered in Nashville by Nova University.

As director of International Affairs, Clark recruited, admitted and welcomed international students. She helped them settle in and register for courses, monitored their academic progress and processed the immigration papers that regulate most aspects of their lives while here, including work and travel. The complex paperwork can be baffling, even to individuals who work with it on a daily basis, says Clark's long-time assistant, Teryll Beach, who retired in April.

She and I constantly turned to a thick manual that explains each facet of immigration law," Beach said. "The regulations are very sensitive, they're not something you can make a mistake on, because if you goof up it's the student who suffers. There is no recourse or if there is, it's expensive: The student has to leave the country and try again."

And that paperwork flows in two directions. Just as Clark assisted international students, she advised American studies who wanted to study abroad. She also is the officer responsible for bringing exchange professors and research scholars to Tennessee Tech, and she encouraged the university's faculty to explore reciprocal visits abroad.

Interaction with individuals from around the globe demands sensitivity to cultural differences, customs and barriers -- something that Clark has in full measure, according to Leo Benetti-Longhini, an Italian who earned two engineering degrees from Tennessee Tech.

"Dr. Clark has an open-mindedness about other cultures; she obviously enjoys other cultures and respects the differences among them," Benetti-Longhini said. "The advantage to the university has been that no matter where an international student is from, she seems to grasp the student's issues, deal with the person as an individual and do so in a way that is responsive to the student's cultural background."

In her first year, Clark launched a campus-community partnership that grew into the International Community Hospitality Association. Now in its 27th year, the organization pairs students with families in the community. It also offers a 'loan closet' of furniture for use in student apartments and organizes social activities that strive to build rapport between cultures.

"There was a great need, and there still is, for a program of this nature," says the organization's president, Julia Smoak. "Despite cultural differences, the color of our skin or the language we speak, weUre learning people are people the world over, we are all human beings with the same needs and wants and desires. The program Jo Anne instigated is a one-on-one way to establish some understanding amongst people and to learn from one another."

Smoak says the association has been a success and has served as a model for others elsewhere. The organization has contributed to a worldwide network of contacts for the university developed through friendships among the 5,000 or more internationals who have studied at Tennessee Tech since Clark began her work.

The number of programs established between Tech and international universities have come about pretty much because of Jo Anne. She went to Malaysia last year, and now there are 20 students from there coming to the university. She was able to do that, at least in part, because of her earlier contacts with students from that country, and she's had similar effect elsewhere."

Now that she is retiring, Clark says she hopes to visit many of those friends in travels abroad. "I intend to relax, possibly writing about my experiences, make time for family and friends and maybe even tackle a vegetable garden."

Clark says the memories she will carry include the transformations of the many students sheUs known. "Watching students come in who are very uncertain of their future and their study here and watching them grow into independent, mature individuals and graduate with such confidence -- that is why we're here, to help each person to achieve their educational goals."

Tennessee Tech is hosting a reception in honor of Clark from 2 to 4 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 29, in the President's Conference Room, Room 210, Derryberry Hall. Community members are welcome to attend.