International students find community

by Maggie Doyle | 10/26/18 2:05am

Adjusting to college can be a significant challenge for all students, but a student who also has to acclimate to a new country is in an even tougher position. Students living overseas, who account for roughly 13 percent of the Class of 2022 and who come from 57 different countries, simultaneously navigate the traditional adjustments to Dartmouth’s academic rigor and an adjustment to American culture.

For some students, the difference between American culture and the culture of their home countries is significant. Ruben In ’21, who is from Seoul, South Korea, felt serious culture shock.

“It’s actually pretty huge,” In said. “The culture itself to begin with is so different. The Korean culture and the American culture, and all that. The way [that] people interact with each other, the way they speak, the way they act.”

One of the steps Dartmouth takes to help international students adjust is the International Student Orientation, which takes place in the five days before traditional orientation for first-year students. Some students, like Janel Consuelo Perez ‘22, who is from Manila, Philippines, find this orientation very helpful.

“I met a lot of my friends in the International Student Organization,” Consuelo Perez said, “and it was definitely a great vibe learning about different cultures. It’s easy to connect with people who were as worried as you about the U.S., or people who have also never seen snow in their lives.”

In addition to the ISO, international students can take part in other campus pre-orientation events. The First-Year Student Enrichment Program for first-generation and low-income students is open to both domestic and international students. Dev Punaini ’22, who is from Punjab, India, had FYSEP Orientation at the same time as ISO. He found it interesting to compare the two. Unlike Consuelo Perez, Punaini did not find ISO to be as conducive to forming a community.

“I felt like FYSEP was a lot more focused on community building, while ISO was more information overload,” Punaini said. “It was necessary information. I needed to hear what to do [to] not to screw up my visa status, but … the International Student [Organization] never felt like a community the way FYSEP did and does … If the intention was at all community building [in the ISO], I don’t think that was well done,” Punaini said.

In agreed with Punaini’s evaluation of the ISO.

“They’re not really helpful,” In said. “They’re just talking about visa related things, things we already know about.”

Concerns regarding visa status are of great importance to international students. Dartmouth has an Office of Visa and Immigration Services, which sponsors student visas and advises students on visa-related issues.

“They do really well with scaring us in the first OVIS orientation on how to not get deported,” Consuelo Perez said.

Punaini seemed to agree with Consuelo Perez that the information given at the orientation was thorough, but intimidating.

“Because of the information overload we got in orientation, I understand what things can go wrong and how they can go wrong,” Punaini said. “But it’s unnerving in that there are so many ways for it to go wrong that you’re always on the lookout, and there are some things that are still quite confusing, like the tax form.”

Due to this confusion, Lamees Kareem ’22, an international student from Saudi Arabia, says that international students often make jokes about getting deported for mundane things.

“International students have this joke, ‘Don’t do this, or we will get deported’… Like if we are crossing the street, ‘Oh, I can’t jaywalk, I’ll get deported,’” Kareem said.

Kareem expressed that it is important for international students to have peers to vent to and share advice.

“I think it’s especially important [to have other international students to talk to] just because there are struggles that international students might go though that might not be relatable to other domestic students,” Kareem said.

Punaini says he’s made an effort to maintain strong friendships with domestic students, but realizes that the percentage of international students at Dartmouth is much lower than the percentage of his friends who are international students.

“I go to the [International Students’] Association events now and then because I like to meet other international students, and whine to people who understand visa issues,” Punaini said.

In believes that the sense of community with other international students really helped him during freshman year, though he understands that this isn’t the case for all international students.

“I’m a [fraternity] brother now, so my friends are from all over the place,” In said. “Last year, though, [the Korean Students Association] really helped me out a lot, because they’re either Korean or Korean-American, so they know where I’m coming from.”

The change in culture can also exacerbate homesickness, but it’s often much more difficult for international students to go home over breaks. For some international students, even the six weeks of winter break aren’t enough to make going home worth it.

“I’m staying on campus,” Punaini said. “Going home is just too much of a hassle.”

For those who do go home, buying tickets comes at a steep cost. Janel is going back to the Philippines, but says tickets were extremely expensive. In already bought his ticket back, but isn’t sure if he’ll be using it.

Part of change is growing, but another big part of it is adapting to different situations and expanding one’s worldview. For international students, this is amplified, because of the stark change in environment.

“I think [one] part of Dartmouth that I’ve started thinking more about [is] my interactions with people,” Punaini said. “Making sure I’m being understood across cultural boundaries. Noticing how certain gestures are interpreted.”

Consuelo Perez has felt the need to put in effort to be more sensitive to American cultural boundaries.

“It definitely is a step, and it’s something I’m trying to remember to think about,” Consuelo Perez said. “I used to not really think about [cultural sensitivities] before.”

Through all of the effort and trouble that Consuelo Perez has gone through in adjusting to the United States, she sees at least one major upside.

“I [get to] wake up later than I normally [did]!” she said. “I used to wake up at 5 a.m.”

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