“I learned the American culture because I had one class in it, and that was it. We learned that in America you’ve got to be more individualistic sometimes to strive for the goal. We learned how you talk, greet, participate in class. But I was still [fresh off the boat]; I couldn’t speak English, you know, couldn’t understand. People were all different, they had blond hair. I was just scared of them. The culture shock is pretty significant.”
– Chon Klomjit, McCormick sophomore, originally of Thailand.
International students who attend college in the United States find themselves enrolled in two different schools. One of these schools has a familiar setup: desks, a professor lecturing in the front of the room. But the second school is subtle and all-encompassing. There are no lunch breaks and no office hours, and mastery of the subject is crucial for survival. It’s assimilation into American culture.
Northwestern’s new International Student Association was a long time coming. The Northwestern international student population hovers at about 6 percent and includes about 125 students in the class of 2011, according to the current university admissions fact sheet. Other universities with a comparable number of international students have had an established international student group for many years.
“The international students here are definitely excited,” said Weinberg sophomore Alex Jeffers, the group’s vice president of finance. “When we had our first event in the Norris basement, we had food for 20 or 30 people… and about 150 showed up.”
Meixi Ng, a SESP freshman from Singapore, is both the external vice president and cultural and global affairs chair of the ISA.
“One of our visions is to serve not only as a resource for international students, but also as resource to Northwestern in general,” she said. “In my experience, an international person can open up a lot of different mindsets in thinking about issues.”
Ravi Shankar, the department head of the International Office, said that the ISA will fill a gap in programming for international students. The ISA plans to host international festivals showcasing cultural traditions like food and dance, and a fall orientation to mentor incoming students making the international transition.
ISA also is a support group for the international students as they make the adjustment not only from high school to college, but also from another country to America. Six international Wildcats offered up stories of their attempts to tackle the challenges of being students permanently abroad — “dumped,” as one put it, in the good ‘ol Red, White and Blue.
Long-distance relationships are even harder
Between communication issues, fidelity and sexual frustration, long-distance relationships are difficult enough. Imagine, then, taking the typical X-state-school-to-Northwestern time gap of two hours and multiplying it by six.
That’s the equation that Ng is trying to overcome with her boyfriend: He’s a whopping 12 hours ahead of her in Evanston. “The only two times when I can call back home are really late at night or really early in the morning. My boyfriend calls me in the morning and that’s when he goes to bed.”
An international relationship is not for the faint of heart. “It’s difficult,” Ng says, “but technology helps a lot. Skype is good.”
Classes taught in a non-native language make nodding-off not an option
Most students fight language-comprehension battles as they doze in and out of sleep with a professor’s rambling floating around between their ears. But for some international students, staying on track in class is an entirely different challenge.
“It’s hard to read at the same level as the native, also to speak, and listen,” Klomjit said. “I spend more time, twice the time as other people spend, doing homework, because if I can’t understand one sentence then I can’t go on. I read the whole page and then don’t process it.”
Klomjit said that he thinks it’s easier for a person speaking English as a new language to take math classes because mathematics is universal and quick mental calculations can be done in a person’s native language. But that doesn’t mean that the incorporation of math into a humanities course makes it easier for international students. “Psychology was really hard, like, the combination of talking about numbers and statistics and then also theories” Klomjit said. “I’m really slow: I had to receive the information, transfer it to my brain, calculate the answer, transfer it back to English and then speak.”
It can be hard to find people who really understand you
It’s sometimes a struggle in college, and life, to find the people who will love you even during midterms, when you relentlessly snap at them one moment and then beg them for food the next. Many international students come to the U.S. with the goal of integrating and immersing themselves in American culture, but they often find themselves returning to their cultural groups as core social outlets.
Oytun Emre Yücel, a McCormick freshman originally from Turkey, said that not only is his core group of friends at Northwestern from Turkey, but that they also speak Turkish when they are hanging out together. “There are certain conversations that we can have in our language that we just can’t have in English,” he said.
Yücel is conflicted about adopting American social and cultural values. “At home, it’s not always about going out to drink and get wasted and not remember the last night,” he said. “It’s very much like social drinking. You go out with friends, drink, have fun, dance a little, sit down, talk, have a great night, come back to your house, sleep and actually remember that night the next morning. Some of the Turkish people I know get used to the ‘American way,’ but not a lot of people in my class have.”
Carolina Pardo, a McCormick freshman from Venezuela, said that spending time with her Latin American friends is comforting because they can relate in terms of language, family values and the general ambiance they were accustomed to in their childhood. “People are not as close to their families here as people in Latin America are,” Pardo said. “At home, my grandparents live a block away. Most college students in Venezuela don’t leave their homes until very, very late.”
Nearly everyone is dissatisfied with the (lack of) financial aid
Northwestern’s financial aid offerings for international students severely differ from those for other students, according to many international students who were interviewed. Carolyn Lindley, the university director of financial aid, said that this is the third year that financial aid has been offered to international students. The process is extremely selective because only 10 students are selected to receive financial scholarship.
The system has two different pools for international-student applications; one is for the students who want to be considered for financial aid, and one is for generic admission without aid consideration. It is much more difficult to get admitted from the financial aid pile because fewer people are chosen. If you’re an international student who really wants to wear that purple with pride, “you’re better off not asking for financial aid,” Ng said.
Also, unlike domestic students, if you originally declared yourself ineligible for aid, that decision lasts for four years and will not be re-evaluated. “If something happened to my family and we weren’t able to pay for school, I would have to transfer,” Ng said.
Lisa Sun, a Weinberg junior originally from China, said that with current exchange rates, many families are even more stretched than usual. “For some families, there is a currency difference of 1:7,” Sun said. “Very few families can afford that.”
The freedom to learn does not go unappreciated
But life as an international student can have definite advantages, too. Some students choose to come to Northwestern to escape problems in their home countries. Pardo chose to attend school in the U.S. because she is dissatisfied with the politics back home in Venezuela. She sees her stint in Chicago as an invaluable learning experience.
“If you’re an engineer in Venezuela, there’s no wiggle room to do what you’re interested in. You have to know your junior year of high school what you want to be,” Pardo said. “Giving the students choices in their education is a reflection of American culture and I think it’s something that every culture should have. It’s definitely a positive thing. Someday I’m going to return to my country and I’ll definitely bring this value with me.”
Illustrations by Nick Teddy / North by Northwestern.