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The Internationals

International students bring diversity and different points of view to campus life but face challenges adjusting to U.S. culture.


by Zeninjor Enwemeka and Steph Yiu

Video: Watch our interviews with first-year international students at New Student Week in September. For more video, visit our channel on YouTube.

It's the first day of New Student Week in mid-September, and keeping with tradition, it's swelteringly hot. While packed SUVs line campus streets, and dads and moms with aching backs grumble about lugging too much stuff, other students arrive on campus with just two suitcases in tow. Why? It's the baggage limit for international air travel.

After a 20-hour flight from Hong Kong, freshman Walter Chu lands alone at O'Hare International Airport, no parents to help him with his elephantine suitcases.

"Northwestern has all the components of my dream college," he had explained via Skype (a computer-transmitted phone call) from Hong Kong two weeks before. "It's not downtown but not that remote. It has a beautiful campus," said Chu, who visited the University on a college tour during high school. "And I'm interested in studying economics, and Northwestern offers a good program."

The night before move-in day, Chu stays at a hotel in nearby Skokie, Ill. The next morning, with printed directions in hand, he directs the cabdriver through campus. At 3 p.m. Chu finally moves himself into 1835 Hinman Hall, his new home in the United States.

He's one of approximately 110 first-year international students, in a class of 1,981, attending Northwestern on a student visa. In 2006–07 the University's entire undergraduate population included 446 students with foreign passports.

All of them had to check in at the International Office during their first-year orientation.

At 9 a.m. on this move-in day it's Peruvian Ismael Abdala's turn. Standing in the tiny building on Dartmouth Place, Abdala clutches his passport and I-20 (a U.S. Department of Homeland Security document) while filling out form after form. With an easy smile on his face, he looks excited yet confused. His father waits patiently beside the desk, eyeing the paperwork.

"My parents helped me a lot with looking at schools and supported me with this idea of my coming here," Abdala says. "I didn't want them to feel that they were left out, so I asked them if they could come with me to help me move in. … I think they were more excited about it than I was."

His mom arrives on campus two days later. At Northwestern, Abdala will study at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, where about 20 percent of foreign undergraduates enroll.

These international students help make Northwestern a diverse community, says Aaron Zdawczyk, assistant director of admission and financial aid.

"Some people argue, why does it matter how diverse Northwestern is?" Zdawczyk says. "But the reality is that the world is diverse, and by fostering cross-cultural understanding the University can play a role in making the world a better place."

International Appeal

Like other students, international students are attracted to Northwestern not only because of its high academic status as a top-ranking institution in the United States but also because of its size, academic and cultural diversity and proximity to Chicago, according to Zdawczyk. "Many people around the world know the Northwestern name, so it's not a hard sell," he says.

For international students considering Northwestern, paying tuition can be a daunting issue. Tuition for the 2007–08 academic year is $35,064, but throw in other expenses, such as books, room, board and international travel, and the annual total can easily surpass $50,000. For many, the cost is the biggest barrier in coming to Northwestern.

Three years ago the University began using its own funds to offer a small number of international students need-based financial aid. So far, about 10 to 15 students a year have benefited from this program.

"We want the best students in the world, and we're just trying to help them afford it," Zdawczyk says.

The international financial aid program is one factor that has contributed to a doubling of international applications in the last three years to more than 2,000. Zdawczyk says it has also diversified the pool of international students coming to Northwestern. While in the past, students typically came from India, Korea, Thailand, Turkey and several European countries, there is now a surge in applicants from other countries, including Bulgaria, China, Ghana, Nepal, Nigeria, Romania and Zimbabwe.

For Yee Hoong Chow, a McCormick sophomore from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, coming to Northwestern was only possible through a Malaysian government grant.

"I come from an average-income family," he says. "Northwestern was the best school I got into, and there was no way for me to come here without my fellowship."

Yet the majority of Northwestern's international students can afford to come to the University without financial aid, Zdawczyk says. Many of them transition to Northwestern from international high schools, institutions with curricula based on the U.S. or European education systems. Most of these students speak English as a first language.

Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences freshman Gautam Bahadur, who is Indian, lived in Hong Kong, Switzerland and Turkey before attending high school at the International School of Beijing.

"There was always an understanding growing up that I would come to the United States for college," he says, "because it was the best education in the world."

For other international students, attending college in the United States is a homecoming of sorts. Born in Chicago to American parents, Elise Boroian moved to Paris with her family at age 5.

"I'm an American citizen because I was born here, but I had never experienced American culture or the American way of life," the Weinberg senior says. "So, I thought college would be the best way to experience that." (Students like Boroian who were born to U.S. parents but grew up overseas are known as "third culture kids." Read more about Northwestern's TCKs.)

These students, typically with U.S. passports or dual citizenship, are not included in the statistics the International Office maintains, because it only keeps track of those here on student visas. In that sense, Northwestern is more international than the numbers show.

Getting Settled

For Boroian, Bahadur and other international students, adjusting to life in the United States is a continual process.

International Office student adviser Nick Seamons says he hears plenty of comments about the bitter Chicago weather. "That's their biggest complaint," he says. "A lot of them show up without coats. They don't realize how cold it'll actually get."

International student Seda Cinlar, a McCormick senior from Istanbul, Turkey, struggled with the language barrier.

"I had never spoken English daily until I arrived here," Cinlar recalls. "In school they taught you to say, 'How are you?' 'I'm fine, thanks. And you?'"

"When I came here, everyone was asking 'Hey, what's up?' For the first few days, I tried to listen to everyone to hear how they were responding," she continues. "Little things like that made the adjustment difficult for me."

To help address such cultural obstacles, Cinlar and Therese Simpson, the International Office coordinator for students, established the International Peer Mentor program in 2004. The program, which pairs a student mentor with up to three incoming students, offers shopping trips as well as social events, including a Thanksgiving dinner and a Chicago ice-skating trip, to help the globetrotters get settled.

Tatiana Filimonova, who is working toward a doctorate in literature, participated in the IPM program when she first came to Northwestern and then became a mentor. Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, Filimonova says that the social aspect of the program benefits students the most.

"Through this program I met people from 10 different departments with whom I am friends now," she says. As a mentor, she makes sure to provide the same social opportunities for her mentees. "I invite them to events they wouldn't have gone to otherwise, because it's hard to go alone," she said.

While making new friends is important, keeping in touch with old friends and family internationally has gotten easier with technology. Thanks to e-mail and web-based phone calls, Cinlar is able to communicate with her family on a regular basis, whether it's by chatting online or via a web cam.

But there's one thing the Internet can't provide, and that's the one thing international students often miss the most.

"Food," says Chow, from Malaysia. For him, it's nasi lemak, a yellow coconut rice served with varying vegetable side dishes and sambal, a chili sauce.

For Maryam Majekodunmi, from London, it's fish and chips. For Cinlar, it's simit, a circular bread with sesame seeds, with Turkish tea and eggplant salad … just for starters.

And for Jod Taywaditep, a clinical psychologist and assistant director for training at Northwestern's Counseling and Psychological Services, it's Thai food. Having moved to the United States from Thailand more than a decade ago, he has developed a special interest in international students.

"Lots of people say, 'What's the big deal with being able to find that dish? That can't be enough to make you depressed!'" Taywaditep explains. "Well, it's a number of things. We don't know how important those attachments are until we lose them. Then, put that on top of speaking a different language, the absence of family, friends and familiar places, the loss of the routine in their daily lives and the pressure of conforming to what is appropriate or what is expected in the United States."

CAPS sees about 1,605 students a year, and about 7 percent of the clients are international. Taywaditep says that for some international students, especially those who do not speak English as a first language, life on campus is significantly more challenging than for local students.

"Knowing that at the end of school they may return to their home culture tends to affect their growth and development as people," he says. Students who live in the United States can make friends and develop romantic relationships without having to worry about leaving the country after a few years.

"Some international students may say, my life is on hold for those issues for a while. I'm going to focus on studying. My life here is to study, after all," Taywaditep says. "Or some people will say, I'm not putting it on hold, but will my relationships fall apart when I go back to my home country?"

One fact of life for international students is the ever-present pile of paperwork. Most international students at Northwestern are here on an F-1 visa. It must be signed annually to allow the student to travel in and out of the country, which means the University's International Office gets especially busy before winter and summer breaks.

The office staff also advises students on immigration laws and visa regulations. Students seeking a summer internship must apply months in advance for a special permit. Students from overseas can work on campus, though only U.S. citizens are eligible for work-study jobs.

International Office adviser Nick Seamons says the most common questions he gets from undergraduates deal with work and travel issues, although questions about acculturation are not uncommon.

First Impressions

"Most surprisingly," says Chu, after living in 1835 Hinman for three weeks with U.S. suitemates, "I've found the differences between us a lot wider than I thought."

The second night in the dorms, Chu recalls, the common room was packed with students excitedly watching an American football game. Not knowing much about the sport, it was hard for him to participate. And there were other aspects to being in a new culture he had never expected, such as the awkwardness of being the only Asian person at a fraternity party.

Before coming to the States, Chu says he expected Northwestern to be a place where he could learn about different cultures and people, play soccer and maybe even try out a sailing class or two. But once here, he realized that overcoming the cultural hurdle was a lot harder than he expected.

"It's nice to socialize with Americans, but it's difficult, too," he says. "They love to talk about their politics, their football, their inside jokes. It's something I don't really understand and enjoy.

"When a bunch of people are talking about something you know nothing about, you feel lost and left out. And you can't expect them to stop and explain to you what's going on all the time, so from time to time you just don't want to talk to them anymore."

Almost every international student will tell you that the first quarter is the hardest. Although Chow, the sophomore from Malaysia, is now plenty happy to be in Evanston, donning a Chicago White Sox hat and glowing about his new friends, he clearly remembers freshman year.

"First quarter was ridiculous," he says. "I didn't even know what was going on around me, the culture was so different."

Not only were Americans more independent (that rubbed off, says Chow), but there was a whole new world of pop culture.

"First, I didn't understand the jokes," he said. Then, the hard R's and flat A's of the American accent didn't make it any easier.

"Everyone was speaking with such an accent, it was hard to keep up," he says. "It's the main thing a lot of international students have to deal with here. Not so much the language in class, it's tougher in daily conversations."

It helped that Chow's freshman year hallmates were eager to assist, especially his roommate from Texas. They also helped him explore a whole new world of food. Chow sampled Mexican and Italian fare, learning the names of different dishes by asking his friends or looking online.

The best thing about coming to Northwestern, he says, is that it's so diverse. He's gained perspectives from people from all over the world.

Majekodunmi, a Weinberg sophomore who grew up in Nigeria and England, says her friends have introduced her to fraternity and sorority life — "it was just like in the movies," she says — and various types of music, such as Reggaeton (a mix of reggae, Spanish and hip hop) and southern. The education here is fantastic, she says, and she admires the independence Americans have at a young age.

Still, she says her first social experiences were a bit unsettling. "It was a complete shock to me coming here. The people here are really open and outgoing and really loud," she says. "The social life on campus is just very different. The maturity is just not there at all."

When it comes to parties or drinking, it seems to Majekodunmi that everything in excess is the norm. It's an opinion shared by other international students.

"Alcohol is a huge issue here," says U.S.-born Elise Boroian, who lives in Paris. In France, she says, moderate consumption of alcohol is a part of everyday life. "I've been drinking wine with my parents since I was young and could go get a beer with friends at 16."

The college party culture surprised Boroian, too. At her first frat party, she was taken aback by the dirty dancing and grinding she saw.

International students also encounter their fair share of stereotypes. With her British accent, Majekodunmi is often asked to indulge her American classmates by saying certain words and answering questions such as: "Have you seen the Queen?" "Do you ride the red buses?" or "Have you seen Harry or William?"

An American who has lived in France for most of her life, Boroian fends off guys who claim she must be a good kisser and others who label her as stuck-up or a snob because of her French background.

"I feel like people from America want to put people into a box," she says. Because the United States is so huge, she says, Americans aren't as aware of the bigger world. "In France you're around different countries, different cultures, and so you're exposed more to the world. So when I'm here I feel more open and more tolerant because I grew up with people from all over the world."

For Majekodunmi, isolation is one of her biggest issues about being in the United States. "The fact that many Americans don't know the reality about the rest of the world I think is a downside because they are not exposed to other ways of life," she says. But she agrees that the presence of international students is mutually beneficial in dispelling stereotypes about different groups of people.

"It reminds students that there's a whole other world out there," Boroian says. "Maybe the fact that international students decide to come here will inspire more Americans to study abroad."

Zeninjor Enwemeka (J07) is a multimedia producer for One Economy, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that uses technology to help low-income people improve their lives. She lives in Silver Spring, Md.

Steph Yiu, a Medill School senior from Singapore, plans to graduate at the end of winter quarter and will intern at the Boston Globe this summer.

Tell us what you think. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at letters@northwestern.edu.

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Caitlin Masney
Caitlin Masney, a first-year student in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, attended the Chinese International School in Hong Kong. She is a member of the Northwestern swim team.Photo by Nick Infusino (WCAS08)
 
Gautam Bahadur
Gautam Bahadur lived in Hong Kong, Switzerland, Turkey and Beijing before coming to Northwestern.Photo by Nick Infusino (WCAS08)
 
Walter Chu
Walter Chu, like many international students, uses technology to keep in touch with his family in Hong Kong.Photo by Nick Infusino (WCAS08)
 
Teisha Lightbourne
Teisha Lightbourne, a member of the Northwestern swim team from Nassau, Bahamas, plans to study biology and environmental sciences.Photo by Marcelino Benito (J10)
 
Yee Hoong Chow
Yee Hoong Chow, a sophomore engineering major from Kuala Lumpur, came to Northwestern on a Malaysian government grant.Photo by Nick Infusino (WCAS08)