International students on the tough transition to Colby

While all newcomers must navigate the Hill to find their niche, for many international students, the social stress of this endeavor is magnified by the simultaneous struggle of adopting a foreign country and culture. Suddenly, many of the social dictums they have followed their whole lives become unreliable. What they say and how they say it undergoes a mammoth paradigm shift as they enter a perpetual translation, not only of words and phrases, but also of ideas and perceptions.

Certainly, out-of-state students also encounter very noticeable differences between Waterville and home, but they arrive already fully proficient in the same language, aware of the social dos and don’ts. Regardless of the differences between the North and the South, California and Rhode Island, there are unifying traits among Americans that put them on the same wavelength, making it easier to understand and interact with one another. Naturally, a fine separation between Americans and internationals sometimes begins to form. It can be a “hard, alienating, lonely, weird, strange, isolated” territory for foreigners to trek into, according to Charlotte Beaulieu ’20 who is from France. Yet, regardless of how difficult the transition may be, it is also “fun and interesting,” she said.

Many international students have mixed feelings regarding this transition. On one hand, it is terrifying to be so far away from home in a sometimes incomprehensible land; on the other, it is this very trepidation that is so alluring and intriguing. It presents infinite opportunities to learn, examine, question, and assess in an introspective fashion. Indeed, stepping out of one’s comfort zone is met with enthusiasm; otherwise, international students would not have gone through the trouble. Part of the Colby experience as an international student is to be immersed in a completely different atmosphere in order to gain a unique perspective and understanding of life beyond one’s own nation and culture.

Hoa Nguyen ’20 explained, “I love Colby’s small campus because it’s impossible to walk around without saying hi to people you know. The whole school feels like a close-knit family which is not something you would normally find in Vietnam or Singapore.”

Meanwhile, German Language Assistant Lotti Klemp commented on how it is “so cold” and Sunny Dangui ’20 said she misses “authentic Chinese food and squat toilets, because they are more sanitized and there are no huge gaps between the bathroom doors.”

Unfortunately, however, there are sometimes less trivial and more overwhelming worries on some international students’ minds. The unknown social structures seem to be far more confusing and troubling, breaching the threshold of excitement and crossing into trepidation and anxiety.

“American students are very comfortable with social interactions, or they have managed to master how to appear so,” says Radhika Vu ’20, who is from Vietnam. Entering a scene where everyone else seems to have it all figured out is intimidating at best, alienating at worst. Often, the conversation among domestic students shifts to uniquely American topics that international students simply cannot relate to– most commonly, American football. These conversations often become quite superficial because the topics are seemingly universal and, quite simply, easy and convenient.

This happens in any culture, though: “these are the things people talk about all the time, everywhere, not just here. But elsewhere it’s the same sport – soccer. Here, it’s American football,” explained Egyptian student Khaled ElTokhy ’19. “It’s never a big deal, though, because I just divert the conversation whenever people start talking about things I can’t relate to.” Such interjections actually make the conversation more stimulating for everyone involved, regardless of nationality, because there is a sense of homogeneity here that ElTokhy recognizes. “It’s not just the people, but more so the conversations and activities. Every Friday night is the same, and every Wednesday night is the same.” And while home undoubtedly has routines for almost any individual, for international students here, he argues that the routine “is the same all the time, but is always unusual, always unexpected. It’s things that [international students are] not used to.” This elicits an awkward and uncomfortable feeling that they are interrupting the routine and disrupting the homogeneity with their foreignness, something that may be disquieting or annoying for domestic students.

“I worried about how many people would actually have time to spend with me and care about it,” says one first-year international student. “But,” he counters, “the longer I am here the more I feel that most of my worries were unfounded. Almost everyone is kind and it was demeaning on my part to think that anyone would be even remotely uninteresting. Sometimes I still feel a little tired and lonely but I know already that under the passive polite surface people also actively care about each other whether we are going through hardships or good times.”

Still, the uneasiness of some transitions makes some students question the validity of their spot in Colby. One student wonders whether their admission to Colby was hinged on the fact that they would “diversify the community and become an artifact for the entertainment and cultural exposure of the local students.” Even though time and again all Colby students are reminded that every single student here deserves their spot, the thought that there is an underlying reason for acceptance lingers. This is especially augmented when people repeatedly ask about one’s heritage, ethnicity, nationality, and everything associated with the alien culture not out of honest interest but rather out of whimful curiosity.

For this reason, many international students agree that the international orientation program is a crucial first step in becoming comfortable in the Colby community. According to Vu, it “felt like we had the campus to ourselves […] like I had a place here even when I would occasionally feel out of place in social settings.” From fellow international first-years to seasoned International Club members, “the community of international students is a really solid support system in this process of navigating through this new social environment.”

Being surrounded by international students at first makes the transition a lot more manageable. “The people whom I can call friends are all internationals and I can be around them because deep down I know they are going through the same thing I am. I can definitely say that I haven’t found the bond that the internationals have between any other first year group,” shares Iranian student Alaleh Naderi ’20. Nevertheless, some of the main focuses of the International Club are to bridge the gap between the domestic and international communities: it is constantly striving to remove the sensation that there is an “us” and a “them” between the two. The ultimate goal is to make the Colby community feel like one cohesive, yet beautifully diverse, entity in which students can appreciate their individual differences as well as the differences between their homelands and Mayflower Hill without the negative backlash that seems to be inherent in culture shock.

The overall transitional experience is not necessarily a negative one; it is simply a long process to assimilate to a brand new culture. It is a whole new arena of emotions, perceptions, and interactions that take time to get used to, but eventually create wonderful and cherished memories and provide international students with the friends and experience of a lifetime.

  • Lance

    Excellent insight because being an international student isn’t easy, given our complex culture and language. Assistance must come from numerous sources to aid these young people embarking on life’s journey. Most struggle in their efforts and need guidance from schools’ international departments, immigration protection, host families, concerned neighbors and fellow students, and even informative books to extend a cultural helping hand so we all have a win-win situation.

    One such new award-winning worldwide book/ebook that reaches out to help anyone coming to the US is “What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More.” It is used in foreign Fulbright student programs and endorsed worldwide by ambassadors, educators, and editors. It also identifies “foreigners” who became successful in the US and how they’ve contributed to our society, including students.

    A chapter on education explains how to be accepted to an American university and cope with a confusing new culture, friendship process and daunting classroom differences. Some stay after graduation. It has chapters that explain how US businesses operate and how to get a job (which differs from most countries), a must for those who want to work with/for an American firm here or overseas.

    It also has chapters that identify the most common English grammar and speech problems foreigners have and tips for easily overcoming them, the number one stumbling block they say they have to succeeding here.

    Good luck to all at Colby or wherever you study!