International Perspectives: Profiling Six International Students

This week, I’m sharing perspectives from seven international students at Oberlin. These students are all part of the International Student Organization and were interested in sharing their experiences with the Review. The ISO wrote an email to the Review about its purpose as an organization. “The ISO is an eclectic cultural organization. Our main goal is to foster the creation of a community amongst all international students. To do this, we organize activities that both provide an opportunity for all students to come together and get to know each other and to show the cultures represented at Oberlin to the rest of the campus. We always welcome everyone on campus to our events, with the hopes that all international, dual citizens, third culture kids, American and any other students can enjoy each other’s company and learn something new through their interactions.”

Marah Ajilat

• Madaba, Jordan

• College sophomore

• Politics major

So you said in your email that you want to talk more about the general needs of international students on campus.

Marah Ajilat: I think there are a lot of people on this campus who are working really hard to make sure international students are transitioning well … I just want to see more things for international students that are not just focusing on transitioning to college, but also succeeding later on.

We like to think that [Oberlin] is a place where there’s a lot of acceptance and tolerance. [But] I want this to be a reminder that no, we’re not doing everything we can. There are disadvantaged groups on campus, and within those groups there are individuals who are intersectionally disadvantaged — international students. So I find it inaccurate to say that we, the students, are doing the best we can to make everyone’s experience at Oberlin better. The College does this great program where they get students and families [near] campus [to] connect [with international students] … and [my host family] helped me stay really grounded. They’re very, very nice people. They’re the ones who are trying really hard to make sure that, as an international student, I’m having a good time. One of them invited me to decorate the Christmas tree with them because I am not going home this winter. That initiative has not come up among the students. This is an example of the community stepping in when the students fall short of their promise that we’re doing everything we can.

Why don’t students at Oberlin hear the perspectives of international students?

Anytime I’m not in Oberlin and people pick up on my accent, they’re curious. They want to know where I’m from, and we have this great discussion. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking questions. But here at Oberlin, we’ve developed this culture that asking people questions somehow will lead to [someone] being offended. And I understand that identity is something that’s very personal. But guess what: there’s also identity that’s based in the community and not just individual.

Is there anything specific to being an international student that you wish that domestic students knew?

MA: We have experiences just like everyone else. It would be really a shame if we weren’t able to share that experience because someone is trying not to be impolite, intrusive. Sometimes I like to say things and gauge people’s reactions when I’m trying to figure out that whole cultural barrier. [For example,] I’m Christian; most Arabs are not Christian. Most people assume I’m Muslim because I’m Arab, so it’s always so funny when I break the truth. I was born about 10 minutes away from where Jesus was baptized and from Mount Nebo. …  And there are so many stories that so many other students can tell, and it doesn’t hurt to know them. It only does more good than harm.

Anshuman Mor

• Mumbai, India

• College first-year

• Prospective Environmental Studies major

What is Mumbai like?

Anshuman Mor: Mumbai is about 20 million people, a little less than three times the size of New York. So it’s really big. Really crowded. … Part of why I picked [Oberlin] is because I wanted to get away from the big city, so I appreciated being able to go outdoors and having nature around me.

Is there anything that you wish domestic students knew about students from India in general?

AM: Well, I hate when people call me “Native American,” [or when] people call Native Americans “Indians.” … I’d appreciate it if there was a distinction. … Also, I think the flight is definitely worth mentioning. For me, at least, it’s 17 hours. So it’s a big investment.

How’s the adjustment to CDS food?

AM: I was brought up vegetarian, so I felt like I had to switch to eating meat to take full advantage of everything that’s available. I’ve wanted to try meat for a while, but there’s cultural issues around it in India, like my whole family is vegetarian — my extended family, both sides. My family looks down upon [eating meat], and I think [India] has the highest percentage of vegetarians in the world. It’s a religious cultural thing; the predominant religion in India is Hinduism, and there are certain parts of Hinduism that don’t allow eating meat.

Are there aspects of academics that feel different to you?

AM: There’s lots of differences in the classroom. I have issues because sometimes professors use American references while explaining things and I don’t know what they mean … A lot of the education seems centered around U.S.-related issues rather than global issues. I’m in environmental studies, and I have to take an environmental policy class for the major. But it’s only about U.S. politics and environmental studies — so it’s not really helpful or relevant to me but I have to learn [it] anyway.

Katheryne (Kat) Ladouceur

• Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

• College senior

• Economics major, East Asian Studies and Politics minors

Where are you from?

Kat Ladouceur: I was born in Sherbrooke, [Canada], and then I lived in Denmark for three years. Then I lived in Ontario for three years. Then Iowa six years. … I’ve been in Nova Scotia for seven years. My father is a professor, so it was a lot of not finding tenure and then finding tenure in Nova Scotia. So now we’re settled, thank God. [Halifax is] the capital of Nova Scotia. It [has a] lot of universities, a lot of fun, up-and-coming culture.

As a Canadian student, do you notice any cultural differences?

KL: I think I’m in a lucky position because I lived here for a little bit of time, so I didn’t notice large shifts. I think it’s just a different atmosphere. I come from a very polite background — like I’ll say “pardon” instead of “what?” There’s a lack of edge that I feel [is part of] the difference from up north to here. Here, we’re lucky. I feel like Oberlin is tight-knit and close, so there is definitely a neighborly feeling. But the overall atmosphere of the U.S. feels just a little sharper.

Did you grow up speaking French?

KL: I did, so I’m bilingual. [When] I started off, I was fully French; I didn’t know English. [In Iowa] I lost a lot of my French. I would be at such a better place with my family that lives in Quebéc if I would’ve just kept [practicing the language]. But it felt like I was forced into making sure that my English was good enough that I would be able to go to university in the states.

Have you found community within the international students here, or more [with] domestic students?

KL: I did find a lot of really cool international students during pre-orientation … [but] then as the semesters progressed … things separated, and I found myself more so sticking with my softball teammates. … I didn’t really hold a lot of international friends until this year. It’s a little weird because I feel like I have to justify my international-ness. I’m like, ‘I promise I’m Canadian, I promise I’m not from here.’ I’ve noticed that I’ve tried to hold onto the international identity, whether that’s through friends or through wardrobe.

Do you think you’ll move back to Canada after you graduate?

KL: Yeah, I am right now looking for a job in the Canadian government because I’d like to be put into embassies across the world as a Canadian diplomat. It was exciting to come here, but I want to go with a sense of purpose and my Canadian-ness.

Yuxin (Miya) Wang

• Shenyang, China

• College Junior

• East Asian Studies major, prospective Musical Studies major

Had you been to the U.S. before you decided to come  to school here?

Miya Wang: No, it was my first time here, [so] I was pretty nervous before I came. But I lived in a boarding school for six years, so I’m pretty independent. It turns out to be not that [much of] a difference … In my first year and part of my second year, language is still sort of a barrier for me to make friends, talk about what I think. But I don’t think it’s that much of a big deal now. It’s no problem understanding what the professor is talking about in a lecture. But if the professor’s not pointing at [me], I will not raise my hand and say what I think. Definitely I have a lot of thoughts on the issues we’re talking about [in class]; I’m just [thinking], what if I say this wrong? I can picture myself saying the first few sentences correctly, but I don’t know what will happen after that.

I saw that you eat in Pyle. Is this your first year in a co-op?

MW: It’s my first time in a co-op. I really [like being in a] co-op, and the thing that amazes me is not how good the food tastes, but how democratic people [are]. People will ask for everyone’s opinion on everything. I only personally know less than five Chinese friends who dine in co-ops. I would [recommend they all] try a co-op at least for one semester. I feel [like] a lot of people are not familiar with the culture and this foreign environment in general, so they don’t feel [like] exploring around. That was a first-year me; I [was] so used to staying in my safe zone. I [didn’t] really want to try anything new, because everything was so new to me.

Especially when I was really new here I [felt] really sensitive. Even if people are just smiling or chattering with others, that would somehow make me feel bad … Some people may think Chinese students only [spend time] with other Chinese students, [that] they don’t have any American friends. I think that’s a way of defending themselves. I’m afraid of being isolated if I try to join this group of domestic people or something. I feel [like] most Chinese students [would] be really happy if others positively approach them and talk to them.

Raklanna Puangkam

  Chiang Rai, Thailand

• College first-year 

• Prospective Economics and Biology double-major

Where are you from and why did you decide to come to school in the U.S.?

Raklanna Puangkam: I just came from Thailand, and I’m the only Thai student here. Since I was young, I wanted to go to school in the United States. In Thailand we don’t have liberal arts, and when students turn 18, they have to choose the major and then get the entrance exam. I wasn’t sure what I want to do … I’d rather be in the U.S. in order to enter a liberal arts school and be able to explore many things.

Does that make you feel isolated, being the only Thai student?

RP: At the beginning, yes. That’s because they have so many associations, for example, Korean association or Chinese association, and at the beginning [of the year], all the seniors will invite the international students to come eat dinner together. But then I’m the only one left in the dorm and nobody invites me.

Do you find there to be any sort of difficulty or misunderstanding [between international students and domestic students]?

RP: Most people don’t know where Thailand is, so don’t assume that Thailand is Taiwan. They’re totally different areas. … [Also], during fourth meal they had chicken tenders [and] they have one sauce called “Thai sauce.” And I was like, OK, this isn’t authentic. But it’s good that they actually try. If it’s still there, I’ll probably eat it. So don’t think that it is actual [Thai] sauce, but it’s good.

How’s the weather at home compared to here?

RP: Oh my God, I complain [about] this to everyone. I got sick almost every week. In Thailand, [the] average is about 80 or 90 degrees Fahrenheit. So this is a big difference for me.

Teague Harvey

• New Plymouth, New Zealand

• College senior

• Computer Science and Dance double-major

Why did you decide to go to school in the U.S.?

Teague Harvey: All my extended family is American. I didn’t move to New Zealand until I was about six. I guess [the U.S.] was something I … wanted to connect to. My impression of the American system was that there was a lot more availability for diversity in your education, so of course I ended up at a liberal arts school. Also, I wanted to get out of [New Zealand] … I grew up in a small town … and I guess I was feeling the island thing. A lot of my friends now are living in Australia or the U.K.

Was it weird coming here and [experiencing cold weather in December]?

TH: No, because culturally Christmas is supposed to be snowy. So I always knew that I had it weird and better than everyone. Every Christmas day I’d ever had growing up was [at] the beach. We [would] have a nice brunch, do the presents thing, and then go to the beach.

In college, I know you do circus and dancing how did you get into that?

TH: So I come in freshman year [after half of a gap year] and I’m ready to do everything. I took three ExCos my first semester and I didn’t miss a single one. I was just ready to go. I took Beginning Swing, Beginning Blues ExCos, [and] Circus ExCo. Actually, circus was part of the reason I came to Oberlin.

I would stress to people that college is a time when you can create your own identity. Freshman [and sophomore] year I struggled a lot. I struggled with my own identity because I suddenly lost my New Zealand national identity, which I didn’t even know was there because I’m an immigrant. So I needed more ways to define myself, and I found it in art, found it in dance, found it in circus. Sometimes I still struggle with that because I’m not … [the] archetypal [Dance major]. It’s just coming to terms with [the fact] that no one fits into boxes very well. I got lucky that Oberlin turned out to be really good for me, but also that I made the most of it.