International students find family far from home

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Georgina Perez, senior in pre-vet, gets the flag of her home country, Puerto Rico, painted on her face. Participating in extra-curricular activities may be a good way to adapt to the American culture. (Mauricio Caldera | The Collegian)

Imagine living in another country with a different language, culture and way of life. International students at K-State face these obstacles every day and many are away from family and friends for months, sometimes even years at a time.

Each year, the number of international students at K-State increases. Fall 2014 enrollment was up 141 students from last year according to the International Student Scholar Services. These students come from more than 100 countries on six continents.

During their time at K-State, international students endure many uncomfortable situations to obtain degrees and experiences that will make them stronger, more independent individuals.

Family: A common theme at K-State

“The people are great,” Carlos Flores, sophomore in food science and industry from Puerto Rico, said. “They really prove why we’re called a family. I think that’s amazing.”

For Hossam Fahmy, senior in architectural engineering from Egypt, the kindness of the people in Manhattan and the Midwest made K-State feel comfortable. Fahmy said that it’s not something he sees in his cities in Egypt.

“Family; at the beginning when I read that I thought it was all marketing, but then I thought people were really good with that,” Guillermo Balboa, doctoral student in agronomy from Argentina, said. “When you go to the games and you see the passion that people put into all the games, I said ‘Yeah, I feel a part of that now. Now I feel like a K-Stater.’”

Like many students, Balboa visited several schools before choosing K-State.

“This is the only university where I spent a whole week and got to experience the whole university, nobody else invited me to do that,” he said.

Challenges

Many students find it most difficult to be submersed into a culture with a language they have little or no previous knowledge of. Nevertheless, they work very hard to learn English as quickly as they can to get the most out of their time here.

For those students to whom English was new, it was difficult in the beginning to start getting involved and feel comfortable talking to people.

“English is challenging to learn, because it’s not very phonetic and it’s a borrowed language,” said Carolina Camacho, a former paraprofessional educator in English as a Second Language and current director of diversity programs at K-State.

“In my case I think of myself as an outgoing person, so I was not afraid of talking to people in English although I knew I was making lots of mistakes and I still do,” Mario Ortez, graduate student in agricultural economics from Nicaragua, said.

In addition to learning a new language, international students then must do their best to create relationships and find their place on campus.

“I like that people feel part of the university,” Balboa said. “When you have a problem or an issue, you can go to the correct people to help you solve a problem and nobody will talk to you in a bad way. At the beginning, I was thinking that it was just to be polite, but also it’s like a way to be here. It’s common that people are. It’s not fake. I feel comfortable.”

For Abdulrahman Alkhiary, senior in political science and economics and Saudi Arabia native, the most challenging thing was learning to “adapt without knowing the rules of the game.”

“Once I understood the rules of the game, it was a piece of cake,” he said. “You just go by the rules and be who you are.”

The International Student and Scholar Services hosts workshops for new or current international students that features information about U.S. culture issues, health care, weather and driving among other topics.

While international students are able to communicate with family more easily than ever before with video chat and cell phones, it can be very difficult to go without seeing their families for long periods of time. Despite the difficulties, they value their education and experiences here at K-State and know it is part of the deal.

“You must depend on yourself,” Fahmy said. “You are responsible for taking care of yourself.”

Overcoming obstacles

Sometimes it can be difficult for international students to feel at home when they face discrimination.

“Some people are accepting and some are not,” Alkhiary said. “It is not up to me to choose how someone thinks about me. Your fingers are not all the same, therefore not all people are the same.”

According to Alkhiary, the best way to deal with discrimination and diversity is “keeping an open mind. You’re not going to become a better person if you’re not going to keep an open mind.”

International students here see the value of exposing themselves to different cultures and broadening their horizons.

“I have enjoyed meeting new people and expanding my horizons,” Ortez said. “I personally think it all narrows down to the approach you take when you come to this country and the mindset you have. I talk for my self and other friends here in the U.S. that are not from here and I’m not afraid to say we all have had a great time.”

“In the business world when we graduate, things are not going to be the way you want them to be all the time,” Flores said. “A lot of people just decide to stay home. “I could have stayed home and went to the University of Puerto Rico, but I decided to go out there and explore.”

Flores didn’t waste any time in getting involved; he is a member of the Agriculture Student Senate as a sophomore.

“I’m very passionate about serving people,” Flores said. “That’s why I’m here. I also heard there was a lack of diversity and minorities in the student senate so I decided to take action.”

Benefits

Students who come to the U.S. to study are sometimes surprised at the many other cultures brought here by students from other countries.

“In the United States you find not only U.S. culture, but a lot of other cultures as well,” Balboa said. “For example, in this building, we have people from China and Brazil.”

It is common for international students from different countries to become close because of their mutual differences.

“When I came here, it wasn’t to study all the time, it’s good to spend some time with people on the weekends talking about other things,” Balboa said.

Many students, foreign and domestic, accredit Zelia Wiley, assistant dean for Diversity Programs, for their success in stepping outside their comfort zone.

“Students will come visit me in the office just to chat or step in from the cold to get warm before heading to class,” Wiley said. “I also help them with any paperwork they’re not sure about.”

While building relationships is important, education is the main reason students come to K-State. Ann Burger, ISSS student support coordinator, said many other countries put a high value on an American education.

“If I go back to Argentina, with a Ph.D. from here, I can get more good jobs because they recognize the quality Ph.D. from the U.S.,” Balboa said. “I’m happy here. I get great advice. That is one of the most important things. If you work for a big name person, they cannot give you the attention you need. I like the experience of being here, I think I made a great selection.”

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