Khalifani Beja Kitondo hits the nail on the head in describing the experience of international students at the University of Chicago, which he knows intimately, being one himself. Sitting in C-Shop, he speaks about the difficulties of trying to reconcile his past, Kenya, with his present, Chicago. He laughs as he recalls the cultural gaffes that he’d made, grows serious when talking about immigration and visa difficulties, and smiles when describing the ways he is involved on campus.
Khalifani, a second-year, is a picture of ease and confidence as he sits for his interview. It is a state that, he will admit, was not always the case in the often tumultuous process of first coming to a new college, and a new country.
Khalifani Beja Kitondo is a second-year from Kenya.
He is one of many that has been through, and arguably is still going through, this fish-out-of-water experience of cultural adjustment, where some mistakes are as innocuously amusing as thinking a comment like “sick” means physical illness, whereas other problems involve grappling with issues like identity and acceptance.
Year after year, upon leaving the shores of whatever country across the globe that they hail from, international students arrive in Hyde Park to immerse themselves in the life of the mind at a top-ranked university. They learn, slowly, to call ‘lifts’ ‘elevators’, to spell organize with a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’, to drink out of red plastic cups at parties, to talk about the weather in Fahrenheit, and to adjust.
But with each adopted mannerism and toned down accent, they also remember the home and past that they’ve left behind. It is between new and old, abroad and home, that they slowly find their feet, learning how to be themselves, still, in a new country.
Bumps in the Road
According to the latest survey by the University of Chicago, approximately 10 percent of the College, or 564 students, come from outside of the U.S. At first glance, these international students, hailing from as close by as bordering Canada, to as far away as New Zealand, blend into the student population seamlessly, each simply another figure walking across the quad. But the devil is in the details, and subtle reminders often crop up unexpectedly.
Khalifani recalled his first time in the country and being thrown off by—of all things—light switches.
“It’s the simplest things. Something like switching the lights, it’s the opposite here,” he said. “Everything is just the opposite. Common things that you would think anyone would know—they just end up becoming confusing.”
And while Khalifani would describe himself as “well-adjusted” now, the continuous journey of cultural and practical adjustments plays out very differently for every international student. It is, according to Tamara Felden, the director of the Office of International Affairs (OIA), more complicated and fraught with missteps than the average American student’s. As a German student at an American college once, and the coordinator of thousands of international students today, she understands the challenges of moving to an entirely new country where things are unfamiliar.
“We want to think of ourselves as competent, and we want to be accepted as competent. When we make errors, even if they’re not of our own making, we don’t feel as competent. And when you’re new in the U.S., it’s just one thing after another that doesn’t seem to work right.”
Between the stress of sorting through the required immigration paperwork, which Felden admitted is considerable, and the more intangible culture shock that international students go through, it is no wonder that even the simplest tasks become complicated.
An international student who arrives in the U.S. must handle, often alone, various administrative matters such as filing taxes, getting a cellphone plan, opening a bank account, transferring tuition money internationally, and on top of that, managing the immigration paperwork that allows them to reside in the U.S. under a student visa. That same student, facing an onslaught of unfamiliarity, must also adapt culturally to a new environment and keep up with academics, social engagements, and extra-curricular activities.
And of course, they must, on top of everything, remember to enjoy themselves. Because it is college after all.
It’s all the anxiety that any incoming college student faces—the nervousness that comes with meeting new people, the pressures of a new academic environment, and the need to make it all seem effortless—but in this case, multiplied. Cultural differences often mean that the bare bones of social engagement, the ability to read and respond to the social cues people give, simply go over international students’ heads, especially in the first few weeks on campus. This was precisely the experience for Hussein El Keshen, a first-year from Egypt, who said, “Being from America just better equips you to understand what acceptance looks like. For me, it was a challenge because one response here may not mean the same thing back home.”
And it’s this uncertainty, this constant learning and relearning of even the most basic cultural cues, that make international students’ cultural differences painfully apparent, if not to others, certainly to themselves. This discomfort, whether it fades in time or not, is something that international students all have to grapple with.
Tamara Feldon, director of the Office of International Affairs, was once an international college student herself.
Every year in the fall, approximately three days before the torrent of incoming first-years inundate the University’s Hyde Park campus, a smaller-scale welcome plays out on 1414 East 59th Street. International undergraduate students from a variety of countries descend upon International House for their first formal introduction to the school, International Pre-Orientation.
In Ida Noyes Hall, as an OIA officer steps to the podium to brief the students on the bureaucracy of American immigration, the enthusiastic chatter of new acquaintances fills the room and doesn’t quite stop until several taps of the mic are made, sending painful audio feedback that pierces through the chitchat.
Over the course of three days, the students are briefed on immigration issues, taken to set up their bank accounts and phone lines, and are generally subject to a deluge of information regarding their extended stay here. Intended to ease international students into their university experience, IPO deals with their two largest concerns upon arrival—practical ones regarding immigration procedure and social ones, which are far more nebulous.
For Hussein, IPO was where he met fellow Egyptian students with whom he is still in contact, but more crucially, the first-year explained that “just having three low energy days where you get used to everyone, and seeing everyone in the same boat as yourself” was comforting.
IPO has grown to become one of the flagship programs that the OIA organizes each year. And while much of the office’s bread and butter is firmly rooted in the realm of paperwork, handling visa issues, and the like, director Felden said that now more than ever, the OIA is delving into the social side of international students’ well being. The OIA helps students connect to each other through social events like IPO and also helps non-international students, faculty and staff truly understand the mindset and often jarring experience of studying abroad.
“When you’ve always lived your life as an American, it can be very difficult to understand what it is like when you are not part of a culture and you have to step in,” Felden said. She described a past experience dealing with a student from Russia who, facing an immigration-related issue, had emailed multiple people with the same request, when simply approaching one person would have been sufficient.
“Some might misread that as the student being annoying or excessive. But you have to understand that he is coming from a place where if you want to get things done, that is how you do it,” she explained, adding that the school’s ability to understand international students’ psyches is key to helping them. To that end, one of the more interesting programs that the OIA has embarked on is “cultural conditioning”—workshops that simulate an overseas environment for staff of the University, allowing them, for those few hours, the experience of being completely out of their element.
It’s an interesting concept, but one that is ultimately, confined to the couple of hours the workshop runs. The participants, uncomfortable as they may be, are free to walk back into the safety net of a familiar American culture, an option that is not available to international students in the college who are in it for the long haul. And so in response, the OIA also organizes social events—times and places where international students can meet others like themselves and try to build their own safety net.
Yet this social role is an uneasy one for the OIA to play and, for international students, an uneasy one for them to accept. Because while asking for help from an administrative arm of the University with regard to practical matters, like immigration issues, is easy to do, to request assistance when it comes to social situations seems unnatural, and for some, even an admission of personal incompetence, according to many interviewees. Why would you need structured social events to meet people and make friends unless you can’t already do that on your own?
So while this social process is difficult, it is often made more so by international students’ own hesitance to make use of the already available resources by the school, choosing instead to go the road of “fending for themselves.”
It is a mindset that Felden disagreed with: “I think fending for oneself is a big American ideal that is a misnomer.” She added that students have notions about individuals being required to be incredibly independent problem-solvers who can overcome obstacles single-handedly. She said that they too often hear expressions like “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” which ultimately create unnecessary difficulties.
Nevertheless, this gung-ho spirit of tackling a new environment without the cushioning measures of school-based support like the OIA’s initiatives is common. Chris Bello, a fourth-year from Spain, admitted that after IPO, he didn’t participate in many of OIA’s programs, but adds, “There are many ways for international students to engage with the school and their environment, some structured, and some less so.”
And often, it is precisely the less-structured, less University-led social options that international students turn to. Registered Student Organizations (RSOs), less formal than the administration, but more official than personal friend groups, have sprung up as a middle ground.
While adapting to a new, distinctly American college environment, international students may take on new mannerisms, drop accents, and even adopt new names, but there is a sense that preserving their identity, or simply being in touch with their cultures is still a priority.
Helen Han, a second-year from China, said, “I don’t think I’ve fully transitioned to U.S. culture for now. I don’t think I ever will, and I don’t want to, because I also want to maintain my own culture. I don’t want to be a totally different person just because of the U.S.”
For many international students, this reaction to cultural assimilation eventually surfaces during their time in college. Because for all their desire to adapt and fully embrace the American college experience, there is a sense that doing so shouldn’t come as a result of denying their own cultural identities or losing touch with home. Faced with this tension, international students often look to cultural RSOs, hoping that the organizations will provide a microcosm of what was familiar, and with that, a sense of security and comfort.
For Eduardo Rubini, a fourth-year from Brazil and also the current president of the Brazilian Students’ Association, joining his cultural RSO helped him find a community where he could do things that kept him feeling closely connected to home. Speaking Portuguese for instance, he explained, is something that he finds he can only do with other Brazilians or individuals who are adept at the language, but that is rare.
Ryan Kim, president of the Korean Students’ Organization, said that the community he found within KSO was important in helping him transition to college. It provided him with a group of friends that he could better connect with because they shared similar childhood experiences growing up in Korea and understood the difficulties of studying abroad. A lot of the reason he chose to play a more active role in KSO, he said, was to provide this same welcoming community for incoming first-years.
Ryan Kim is a fourth-year from Korea and the president of the Korean Students Organization (KSO).
This sense of camaraderie and community amongst international students from the same country comes more easily often due to the simple fact that many find themselves now a minority of the population.
“Personally, when I hear someone is from Kenya, I get really excited. I hear someone speaking Swahili, I definitely go and talk to them. But when you’re in Kenya and you see a Kenyan, you don’t get excited. There’s millions of Kenyans in Kenya. You’re just another person!” Khalifani chuckled as he explained.
“In a way, being distant from home makes you closer,” the second-year said, elaborating that being in America makes him think more about being Kenyan, and makes him feel closer to others from his country who are also here going through the same foreign experience. It is a self-reflective state that involves having one’s cultural and national identity highlighted in new ways.
Eduardo explained that in Brazil, because students mostly go to school where they are born and live with their parents throughout college, heading to the U.S. is a vastly different route. It is therefore a difficult journey, he said, but one that unites the Brazilian students on campus.
“We chose to come here and we have the opportunity to learn with the best in the world. But it has a cost,” he said. “And I think that we share the cost and share that burden, which in a way, keeps us a close-knit community.”
In these cultural groups, year-round social events, meetings, and miscellaneous celebrations all help international students bond over familiar customs, food, and traditions. But it would be a mistake to think that all international students strongly defined by their country of origin. After all, national and cultural identities only go so far, so not all international students find their close-knit communities within cultural RSOs or identify themselves strongly with other students merely because they come from the same country.
Sophie Zhuang, a third-year from China, explained that while she is close to the international Chinese students in her year because they knew each other from before, she isn’t involved at all with CUSA, and the larger notion of “Chinese heritage” is something she feels ambivalent about.
Over email, Zhuang expressed that she has a strong emotional attachment to her family, friends and childhood memories, and it is that, instead of any “Chinese-ness” to be found in touted cultural traditions and celebrations, that is closest to a sense of home for her.
This notion of difference, that each and every one of us defines our cultural identities in different ways, is a reminder that international students don’t all come from the same mold, though they may be from the same country. And so while some may find solace in the community provided by a cultural RSO, others may find little that resonates with them and the idea of “home” that they have in their minds. For these international students, their communities are found elsewhere, tucked away in conversations in class, ties made through the house system, and camaraderie in sports teams.
As the lights dim, a packed Mandel Hall quiets in anticipation of an explosion of color, song and dance. Dancers decked out in brightly-colored outfits worthy of a veritable Bollywood extravaganza impatiently await their cue and before you know it, the music blares and they rush on stage, kicking off the largest culture show on campus—SASA’s annual spring culture show.
With more than 200 students involved, the spring show is the largest and most prominent event that SASA organizes each year. A celebration and showcase of South Asian culture in the form of song, dance and drama, the show is wildly popular with the student body, drawing an audience and even participants far beyond just those of South Asian descent. The show perfectly demonstrates one of the best aspects of cultural RSOs on campus—their ability to share culture, allowing the uninitiated to understand and experience it.
Dancers perform at the South Asian Student Association’s annual cultural show in 2015. Frank Yan | The Chicago Maroon
While smaller organizations like the BSA may largely consist of Brazilian students, larger cultural RSOs like SASA often host events or have memberships that are a mix of nationalities and ethnicities.
This openness to all students, despite a specific cultural focus, is something that Ryan believes is crucial. He stressed that although one of KSO’s purposes is to represent the Korean community on campus, another important aim of the organization is to foster understanding about Korean culture through direct exchange, education and communication—in other words, when more than just Korean students get together. According to Kim, the KSO is open and has always been open to all students in the College, regardless of nationality. Their board, he said, is currently made up of Korean international students, Korean-American students, and Non-Korean American students, adding that the membership of the organization is equally diverse.
It’s a conscious decision to diversify the organization and engage in more public events, Kim said, especially because Korean students in particular are often seen as too exclusive, choosing only to socialize with other students from the country. Events that are aimed at public participation such as a kimbap (a korean rice roll similar to sushi) making session, or the annual KSO culture show, with its K-pop draw, he said, are all ways in which the organization engages more than just Korean students.
Yet, the balance between providing a tight-knit community for incoming students from a specific culture, and ensuring that the organization remains open and appealing to other students who may simply be interested in learning more is a tough one to handle. Because while trying to appeal to a larger audience, cultural RSOs find themselves having to compromise on what they present as their country’s culture.
Ray Thamthieng, a co-president of the Thai Students Association, lamented, “A lot of the time, people just know about Pad Thai, lady-boys and mango sticky rice or something. It would be a nice addition to get people more involved and more aware of what Thailand is, and not just a third-world country in Southeast Asia, or a holiday destination.” Yet, she explained that many a time, events that attempt to expand cultural understanding of Thailand beyond that, touching on the country’s politics or rich history, just aren’t as popular with students on campus.
The notion that cultural RSOs, especially those representing cultures that are more unfamiliar to the American eye, are often forced to present a caricature of culture is prevalent. Kim admitted that there is a definite compromise in what the KSO can present as “Korean culture” in their public events if they want to draw a crowd. Events can be skewed towards the more light-hearted fare of food, dance, and music, spurred by their comparative popularity amongst the student population.
“Sometimes it’s hard to showcase Korean culture outside of free food or like, K-pop,” he said. “It’s a fight between whether we want more people to come to our events as opposed to whether we want to really show what we define as Korean culture.”
The struggle to represent a culture holistically however, is something that these organizations recognize as important, especially because cultural RSOs often take the leading role and have the loudest voice when it comes to defining how a specific culture is perceived on campus. It isn’t easy to disassociate Chinese culture from the constant Chinese bun sales on campus, or South Asian culture from Bollywood—in other words, the narrow pop culture references that are easily digestible (sometimes literally). But the point is that cultural RSOs are trying to let students see that there is more to each culture than just food and fun.
With SASA, co-presidents Elora Bhasu and Bharat Chandar noted that though the group is still largely known for its annual culture show, they have organized a mix of events in both subject matter and scale. Events such as academic panels, the latest one being on the state of LGBTQ issues in South Asia for instance, are now fixtures on its organizational calendar, as are celebrations for holidays such as Holi, the Hindu festival of colors.
With such events however, there is greater pressure to be representationally accurate, and it is a pressure that Elora admitted is even more strongly felt because the nationality make up of SASA, including herself, is largely non-international.
“For example, with Diwali, I had to give a speech for it, and there was a lot of pressure with that, because you kind of have to do justice to the holiday and there are people who are listening to you who are directly from South Asia, and may potentially know much more about the holiday than I do,” she said.
It is a pressure however, she qualified, that they try their best to meet, and with regard to events where accuracy is key, such as religious festivals, they work directly with groups such as the Office of Spiritual Life and the Hindu Students’ Sangam, to establish credence for their events. Ultimately, by going beyond the food and fun, popular and central as it may be to any culture, cultural organizations like SASA are doing more to represent international students’ cultures in a way that is sensitive, sophisticated and multidimensional, much like the individuals that comprise it.
That is the kind of understanding that individual international students also try to convey to those around them on a daily basis, but even then, there are challenges.
For Helen, speaking to her friends about Chinese culture and the realities of Beijing, where she is from, is something that she enjoys. But still, there are certain topics that she steers clear of. Chinese politics, for one, is an issue that is best left out of the conversation, in her opinion.
Helen Han is a second-year from China.
“I remember when I was taking SOSC and we were reading Marx, a lot of people in my class would use China as an example and criticize it, saying that it’s oppressive or whatever.”
She elaborated by saying that often, she feels a reluctance to go beyond a certain point of clarifying China in cultural exchange, because she feels that most Americans simply do not understand it. Its national affairs, she said, are complex. Most importantly however, the situation is completely different, she said, and when you use an American point of view to interpret a Chinese situation, it just is not appropriate.
The effort it takes to represent and sometimes defend a cultural point of view is tiring, and it is a role that international students are sometimes reluctant to take up. In classes like SOSC, while Helen finds it interesting to hear what others think of China, she will rarely speak up because she simply does not want to be seen as the “representative” of her country.
And this attitude is common. While the experience of a different culture and being international does play a large role in characterizing students’ experiences of college, it clearly is not the only component of international students’ identities, nor do international students want it to be.
“Students are often talked about as international, or LGBTQ, or African-American—in other words, categorized—the reality is that students have all these identities and that they complicate each other,” Felden said. For Eduardo, this notion holds true: being an international student affected but did not define his identity in school.
“Yes, Brazil is a part of me,” he said, “But what defines me, what really makes me [me] on a personal level isn’t just the fact that I’m Brazilian. It’s who I am, it’s what interests me.”
It is a balancing act that international students have to perform: being informed by their culture but not being completely defined by it. There is a natural hesitance to constantly talk about their home country to avoid being pigeonholed by their “international-ness.” It involves one of the most fundamental questions individuals can ask themselves: “Who am I?” In this case, international students must figure out how much of themselves is informed by their past cultural heritage or the experience of being “international,” and how much is due to the various other identities that they claim.
It is a revelatory period that is, for some, surprisingly made much easier because they are abroad. For students like Sophie, to whom the idea of “cultural heritage” is often limiting, coming to the U.S. gave her greater freedom to express herself, simply because “as a foreigner in a far-away land, a lot of cultural expectations are suddenly rendered irrelevant.”
This sense of greater freedom is something that students like Priyanka Sethy agree is one of the greatest benefits when studying away from home. The third-year from India said that while there were definitely challenges to being abroad, for her, the benefits far outweighed any hiccups in cultural transition.
“I feel like I could express more of myself, express myself more freely if anything,” Priyanka said about being in the U.S. She explained that in Hyde Park, simple actions like going out alone or wearing shorts feel more comfortable to her.
She talked about how in certain ways, nationalities may sometimes come to bear less when studying abroad, allowing her experiences that she wouldn’t otherwise have had back home.
“I’m Indian, and India traditionally has had a long-standing conflict with Pakistan. But some Pakistani students whom I’ve met here are now my closest friends,” she said. Being in an environment where Indian domestic political issues have less influence on daily life, she explained, enables her to interact with these friends on a purely social level, something that she said may be more difficult in the environment back home.
Across the board, international students have a certain level of appreciation, even gratitude, for the environment that an American college campus provides. Because, despite the countless cultural missteps that occur along the way, international students do cherish their time here and the selves that they create in this new environment.
For Priyanka, that certainly seems to be the case.
“It’s funny, because a lot of people talk about going to India to find themselves,” she said. “But for me, I feel like I’ve found myself here.”
Speak to international students and you will find that when asked about post-graduation plans, not many will give staying in the U.S. as the sole option, especially when it comes to those seeking employment instead of continuing their education.
When asked about what his largest post-graduation concern was, Eduardo, who is open to returning to Brazil for work, said that visa issues are usually the largest challenge international students face after graduation, especially for those planning to stay. And the worry is not unfounded. For international students, the number of immigration-related hoops that they need to jump through in order to stay in the U.S. is enough to convince students that they are anything but welcome after they graduate.
The process, according to Felden, is complicated. First, an international student applies to jobs that are willing to hire them, coordinating this job search with a specific time period in which they must also apply for a permit that allows them to remain in the country for a year for Optional Practical Training (OPT). If successful, they work for a year in the country, then apply for an H1B visa, which involves paperwork, a lottery system, frequent delays in processing time, and in recent years, an increasingly slimmer chance of having their names pulled out of the immigration hat due to overwhelming demand. Further obstacles include employers being required to prove that no American is deprived of a job before being able to hire any international student, and the tendency for employers to simply not consider international applicants at all due to the extensive and expensive paperwork that needs to be filed. With these barriers, the possibility for international students to stay in the U.S. is whittled down even more.
It is a journey that, if international students choose to pursue, can prove to be hair-raisingly stressful. Ray, who is a fourth-year, is planning to stay in Chicago, but said that once the OPT period runs out, whether she will be able to stay or have to head back to Bangkok is entirely a guessing game.
“Students at the University of Chicago operate on a basis of reason. They think things through; they argue things through. If-Then. And we’re dealing with an immigration system where reason does not necessarily apply, it’s not logical, and If-Then is a very complicated proposition,” Felden said about the process of applying for an H1B visa.
The immigration situation is one that has prompted most international students to cast wider nets when it comes to post-graduation plans, creating global options alongside their stateside job search, which increasingly, are proving to be more than mere back-up plans for students. Chris, who graduates in the spring, is set to work at an international law firm in Paris after graduation and said that this option was far more attractive to him than staying in the U.S.
Indeed, many international students feel that with their college-honed skills and knowledge, as well as their backgrounds, pursuing global opportunities makes far more sense. Going back to their home countries is one option, but even then, international students often face yet another uneasy transition as they find that the places and faces that they once counted as familiar seem to have changed ever so slightly, as they themselves have. Eduardo, when asked about the prospect of returning to Brazil, admitted that there will definitely be a period of readjusting to Brazilian culture for him, since even the littlest things like how he dresses have changed since coming to the U.S.
Going back home for international students, then, also involves leaving the home that they have spent the last four years building for themselves. The bittersweet departure will mean throwing themselves into yet another process of transitioning.
And it will mean having to find their feet, adjusting and readjusting, all over again.