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LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 2, 2024) — Among the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, one particular challenge to navigate was how to accommodate the University of Kentucky's many new international students, who would be unable to begin classes in-person in the fall of 2020.

The UK International Center set out to support these students and create a community of international students taking online classes from their home countries by launching the Global Wildcats program. Now, four years later, many of those Global Wildcats are slated to graduate from UK. 

“I was very worried,” said Julia Mansur Cardoso, a dual-major in economics and management from Brazil graduating this Saturday. “As my visa appointments got postponed and postponed, the reality started to set in that maybe I wasn’t going to be on campus in the fall of 2020. I was so excited to be a UK student and to be on campus, and it was hard knowing that wasn’t going to happen right away.”

Global Wildcats was launched to help students like Cardoso begin taking classes as a UK student and develop a sense of community online, making the eventual transition to being on campus that much easier.

“The program enabled me to graduate on time and take the classes I needed. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be where I am,” said Cardoso. “Beyond just that, though, I still keep in touch with my fellow Global Wildcats and some of them are still my best friends. We formed this amazing community during a trying time.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, staff members in the UK International Center started to think through and plan for the myriad potential problems caused by it. One was simply getting incoming students to campus, and if that wasn’t possible, finding a way to create a sense of community purely online.

“One of the great joys in our work is welcoming new international students to campus,” said Karen Slaymaker, associate director of International Student and Scholar Services. “With the pandemic, that was suddenly thrown in limbo. We had to think and act incredibly fast to get our new students ready to take classes online and do some of the things, like orientation and internationally-focused programming, virtually rather than in-person.”

Slaymaker credits colleagues across campus and the incoming students with the success of Global Wildcats. “It was a team effort between my colleagues in the International Center and so many from different departments and colleges on campus,” she said. “The program also would not have been the success it was without the dedication of our students. They were all in different time zones, sometimes taking their classes at midnight or other inconvenient times, but they made an effort to be part of the campus community, even if they had to wait to do it in person.”

After the fall of 2020, the Global Wildcats finally arrived on campus, relieved and happy to have the college experience they dreamed of.

“It was surreal,” said Sanjana Dhayalan, a neuroscience and psychology major from India. “I was so lucky to make those connections with people and the campus virtually before even arriving on campus. Those relationships just got stronger once we all got to campus.”

Dhayalan, Cardoso and many other Global Wildcats now prepare to graduate from the University of Kentucky. Cardoso will be pursuing a graduate degree in public policy after she graduates. She credits Global Wildcats with helping her clarify her future.

“Without Global Wildcats, I think I could have felt behind academically, but it has allowed me to not only graduate on time, but it allowed me a bit more flexibility. With that flexibility, I added a second major that I am now incredibly passionate about and pursuing as a career.”

As she thinks about her time at UK, Dhayalan, who will pursue a graduate degree in sport psychology, reflects on how crucial Global Wildcats was in getting her to this point.

“It made the transition to being on campus much easier,” she said. “Having those connections on campus that I made during Global Wildcats have made my time at UK unforgettable.”