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She gave her life to serve international students. They gave her a new life in return.

Debra Anderson retired this summer after 22 years serving international students at the University of Florida. “We were able to nurture each other,” she said. “They didn’t know that they were supporting me.” (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)
Debra Anderson retired this summer after 22 years serving international students at the University of Florida. “We were able to nurture each other,” she said. “They didn’t know that they were supporting me.” (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

Debra Anderson agreed to a profile on one condition – it couldn’t be about her.

Anderson retired this summer after 22 years of working for the University of Florida’s International Center (after successfully demanding the dean turn her retirement party into a staff-wide appreciation instead).

I worked alongside her there for several years, in a different department.

Though she supervised nearly a dozen staff as director of International Student Services, she was the one to sleep on an office couch during hurricanes to assist students through the night. She sat with them in the hospital, at their judicial hearings and in jail. And when they sometimes arrived for check-in, suitcases in hand and still no idea where they would stay that night, she invited them home with her.

Anderson was always power-walking the hallways with a student, and I was struck by the glow on their faces, the shine of being seen in a system that can reduce you to your documents. Every year, Anderson made more than 6,000 people feel like individuals.

At her house last month, she stood small inside the doorway, offered me socks to wear inside and an assortment of tea from her students. I soon realized we were surrounded by gifts. Her house is a museum of gratitude.

She pulled me around on a tour while the water boiled.

As she pointed to each knickknack and creation, she talked about the person who gave it to her. This quilt was knit by a staff member. This ornament is from a custodian who worked in her building. Hundreds of items from international students. She dreamed of one day donating the art to hang in a support center for international students.

She told me their first name, where they were from, what they studied, and all the things people might not know about them – hidden talents, inside jokes, what made each person special.

“These kids have stories!” she said, eyes bright behind oversized glasses.

Her whole face expressed her words. It lit up with joy and darkened with injustice. Her brows pulled together when she hadn’t quite tinkered out a solution to something.

She showed me a sketch of herself done by an engineering student.

He became depressed here, she explained, stopped going to class and stayed in bed. When other students alerted Anderson, she asked him to come see her. She walked with him to the Counseling and Wellness Center. She started calling him every morning at 6:30 a.m. to make sure he was on his bus to class.

One day he visited her and said Debra, you really seem stressed out. Do you want to go to the counseling center with me?

“Full circle,” she laughed.

She showed me favors from weddings she’s attended all over the world. Gifts from parents, too, to thank Anderson for watching over their children.

While we talked, her phone kept ringing. Despite being “on vacation” and on the cusp of retirement, she still held the emergency phone. She’d long been the person students call in a crisis.

“Hi honey,” she said when she recognized the voice on the line.

It goes both ways, she wanted me to understand. The students were there for her in crisis, too, whether they knew it or not.

The scrapbook she pulled out gives an outline of that story.

She was born in 1946 and grew up “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Nappanee, Indiana.

“I came from the south side,” she said. “And the kids on the south side didn’t have money.”

She was raised in the Church of the Brethren, one of the historic peace churches, and said they hosted tent cities for Civil Rights protesters. She still frames the needs of international students with the context that we haven’t yet taken care of our own neighbors of color.

By 15, she said, she was working in a Wrangler jeans factory.

Later, while working for the public library, she was sent to a conference at Indiana University. Being on a college campus planted a seed, and she later attended college herself.

She said back then, women could be teachers or nurses but not much else. She rebelled within those constraints by studying to teach physical education.

She protested against the Vietnam War and for the Civil Rights movement.

By her senior year of college, she was married and pregnant with her first child.

She raised two children as a stay-at-home mother, earned a master's degree in gender, culture and race in 1995 and moved to Florida the following year.

She took the job at the University of Florida International Center at the same time that her three-and-a-half decades long marriage began to fall apart. At the time, she said, there were no support services for international students.

“That’s why I say this job really saved me,” she said. “When I took this job and students started coming to me with issues, I had to focus on theirs and not on mine.”

She said she threw herself into her work, sometimes 80 hours a week, “there was just so much to learn.”

One of her students was going through his parents’ divorce at the same time, a practice not common then in his home country of India.

“We were able to nurture each other,” she said. “They didn’t know that they were supporting me.”

When 9/11 happened, the nature of her job changed overnight. Thousands of immigration forms they’d made on typewriters had to be uploaded one by one into a new electronic system that could be monitored by the government.

National security saw international students as potential threats. Anderson held a different view.

“I tried to look at every kid as if they were my own,” she said.

She said when she moved into this house of her own, a friend came over and prayed in every room for God’s blessings.

“It never failed,” Anderson said. “When the kids used to come here, they would talk about the peace. I think it also went both ways.”

Divorced and her children grown, her house remained full.

Her decades as a stay-at-home mother may have uniquely prepared her to care for young students isolated from their families and communities. The day before I visited Anderson, some of the first students she served two decades ago gathered on Zoom with her for Mother’s Day.

One recent doctoral graduate, Ayobami Edun, said Anderson helped him “as though I was an only child.”

He came from Nigeria to the University of Florida five years ago. A professor said they would fund him, but wanted him to come first, Edun said. Edun's mother had to guarantee his funding so he could obtain a visa.

But when he arrived, he said, the professor said they couldn’t fund him until the spring semester. He was stuck with tuition he couldn’t pay. (Anderson said funding falling through like that isn’t uncommon.)

He said his mother considered selling the family house to cover it, not knowing where they would sleep.

The debt from that semester followed him for several more, he said, even after he received assistantships and jobs and poured all the earnings into paying it off.

He remembers that when he was first brought to Anderson for help, she took up his plight as if it were her own.

“She was so compassionate, ready to get to work, started making calls,” Edun said. “I was quite surprised. I wasn’t expecting that kind of reaction from this woman.”

He said his family couldn’t obtain visas to attend ceremonies for the many awards he received as a student, or his graduation. But at every event, Anderson was by his side.

The math is confounding, how she made thousands of students feel like an “only child.”

Edun said when another international student was having surgery, they told him they felt OK because Anderson was holding their hand in the hospital.

During a particularly bad hurricane in 2004, when students called her in a panic, Anderson said she drove into the storm to get them. They bunkered together in Anderson’s house.

When a student was arrested, she visited him every week in jail. Anderson said the student’s mother has called her every Sunday for 12 years.

She kept a diary – the number of international students she’s hosted for one night or more over the years is more than 700.

She beamed describing potlucks, impromptu talent shows, and game nights that stretched until 3 or 4 in the morning. She laughed at how they dug a big hole in her backyard to make a bonfire. They taught each other to cook meals from their home countries. She described it as a “huge, huge family.”

“How many graduate college students would you expect to spend Friday and Saturday night in a house playing Uno?” she asked me. “No alcohol?”

One former student said they used Anderson's garage and car for a project to provide used furniture to students in need.

One year, she said, she had 60 students over for Thanksgiving from 38 countries.

The way Anderson welcomed the students into her home is an anomaly. In one survey of 450 international students in the South and Northeast, nearly 40% reported having no close American friends and wished they had more meaningful interaction with people born here.

“People miss so much by not having these interactions with the students,” Anderson said. “I had to step back and ask myself: Wait a minute, are you doing this to help them? Or are you doing this to help yourself?”

She said they’ve educated her, too, “a growth that I could never get in books.”

The girl from Nappanee, Indiana said she travels the world every day through her students, who come from more than 140 different countries.

Above: Scroll through a selection of the hundreds of Facebook comments left by former students on Debra Anderson's retirement announcement.

She said the world is more divided now than she’s ever seen it – “and I was in college in the ‘60s!” – but this exchange is the key.

“We are the bridges between countries,” she said. “It’s not going to be our political systems.”

Her students taught her to see things from other perspectives: world events and God – and some less serious things too.

A Pakistani-American student she mentored jogged by her side along Stadium Road, cheering her on as he taught her to skateboard in her 50s. 

A national cyclist from Greece asked her to take him bike riding in San Felasco State Park.

“I flipped myself over the handlebars twice!” she said.

She reciprocated the education. When the students didn’t want to pay a new $50 per semester fee for a government system to track them, she taught them how to protest – and they did, successfully.

“I’m sure that my supervisors were not thrilled,” she laughed.

It’s not just academics or immigration that international students have to contend with. It’s how those interact with the rest of life.

Anderson said she advocated for a student who risked losing legal status after having a stroke.

She said students came to her after being told to "get out of our country" following the 2016 election; one had been knocked off her bike at a bus stop; another’s glasses broke when he was hit in the face. Fighting back would’ve meant risking deportation.

Anderson navigated life with them. She also navigated death.

She sat with one student all night in the hospital. His family couldn’t get there in time. It was Anderson with him when he died.

When a student died by suicide in a university lab, it was Anderson who escorted his family.

“Not everybody’s going to be able to do that,” Anderson said of her staff and the hours she put into these crises. “People have families. I was here by myself.”

She is adamant the only reason she was available to handle the toughest cases is because her staff took care of everything else. She asked me to make sure to acknowledge them.

The role she took on is unusual. Anderson won’t be around to handle those cases now that she’s retired.

Instead, she dreams of a support center – a safe place. Somewhere that could connect them to services when they’re in crisis, where they could learn about American culture and gather without feeling ostracized or harassed. Something bigger than just immigration compliance.

In January 2018, following the travel bans and white nationalist Richard Spencer's visit to the university campus, the International Graduate Student Advisory Board asked the dean of the graduate school to create just such "a third place" on campus.

The university hired Charles Murphy that year as the new director for freshman and international admissions. Anderson said she then asked the university, if they were going to make a push for more international undergraduates, to take a serious look at providing more services.

In 2020, she was tasked with heading a new office, International Student Support Services. The move followed a string of student mental health crises and the impacts of COVID. It was a step in the direction of a support center: a unit dedicated to offering resources, guidance and support for students’ wellbeing.

She instituted a mid-term hold on every incoming international undergraduate and transfer student so she could meet each one and “check on them.”

The international center will hire someone to replace Anderson in that role, but she wants to see a physical space created, too. 

Martine Angrand, now director of International Student Services, said she shares Anderson’s desire to see more support for international students, but that they’re limited by the physical space allotted to them by the university. She imagined one space where representatives from campus partners like the Career Connections Center, Student Legal Services and Housing could be physically present to assist international students, but said that would require campus-wide buy-in and square footage.

Anderson grew energized talking about the support center, but then demurred.

“This is just my dream. And I’m stepping down in a way,” she said.

“I’m going to have to say I did the best I could, and tried to help . . . and then not look back. Because it’s going to change.”

Despite retirement, she said she’s committed to seeing her students through ongoing sticky situations and tying up loose ends. It may be a while before her personal cell phone stops ringing. A student from Hungary was set to arrive the day after our interview to stay at Anderson’s house and another from Brazil for the fall semester.

She stepped into the kitchen and took out two mooncakes from the freezer, which was full of them  – gifts from Chinese students.

Settling into the living room with the warmed cakes, she acknowledged it would be hard to step away from the “kids,” every one of whom touched her life and made her a better person.

“But I also learned that in the pandemic, I actually can be by myself," she said. "Because you know why?”

Her eyes twinkled. The corners of her mouth tugged up with a secret.

 “I can hear them,” she said.

My eyebrows raised in question.

“I hear them laughing,” she said.

From her armchair in her quiet, empty house, she smells their food wafting from the dining room. She pointed to the coffee table, where ghosts of students past play Jenga. She hears their music and dancing around the corner.

“You see, I’m never gonna be alone,” Anderson said. “Do you see what I mean? About memories?”

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.