Worldly Wolverines: The students who make the University a global community

By Caitlin Huston, Daily News Editor
Published January 24, 2011

With more than 5,203 international students coming to the University from 117 countries during the fall 2010 semester, the University represents a global community.

But behind the numbers lie a student and a story. Despite the geographical and cultural distance separating their traditions and hometowns from Ann Arbor, there is a common experience and a shared determination among these students hailing from all across the globe.

Zimbabwe

After traveling the world, attending a United States presidential inauguration and witnessing the fervor of vuvuzela-buzzing soccer fans at the 2010 World Cup, it’s hard to imagine how someone can top these experiences. But LSA freshman Palesa Matinde, who is originally from Zimbabwe, labels her first University of Michigan football game as one of the happiest days of her life.

“That was actually the time that I realized I had made the right decision coming to the school,” Matinde said.

Landmark historical moments aside, Matinde has seen more than the average college freshman.

Attending school and spending her youth in Marondera, a small farming town outside of Zimbabwe’s capital city of Harare, Matinde says she had an “awesome” educational experience, in which she learned French, English and Shona — the local language — against the backdrop of a game reserve, lake and farm fields.

Despite its pastoral scenery, Matinde wants her fellow students to know that Africa, especially Zimbabwe, is more than the desert terrain and playful animal kingdom depicted in "The Lion King."

Matinde speaks with a mixed accent that reflects her shared time between England, where her mother lives, and Zimbabwe and South Africa, where her father lives. Describing Zimbabwe, Matinde discusses "the indescribable warmth" of her countrymen, who she says have a "child-like faith" in their country.

This faith may seem admirable to some after Matinde describes her otherwise idyllic education interrupted by “occasional” riots, government rallies and other signs of the regime under which she lived. These small disturbances, however, aren't nearly as difficult as the day-to-day experiences of people in poorer areas of the country.

As former junior mayor of her town's junior council, Matinde witnessed the harsh conditions of her country’s shantytowns when traveling beyond the comforts of her school to look for eye-opening experiences and kinship. In the poorer areas, Matinde says she could feel the toll of the regime on the people, who often did not have access to clean water and were left wearing little more than rags.

But as Matinde stresses, Zimbabwe — which established independence in 1980 — needs time to find a political and economic balance.

“We’ll get here one day, but we’re still so young, and we still have so much to learn — so much to grow from — so I don’t doubt that we’ll rectify the problems that need to be resolved,” she said.

Matinde says she has seen a positive change even in the past two years, with restaurants bustling and food filling store shelves. Despite Zimbabwe’s past turbulence and Matinde’s many travels, she calls Zimbabwe “her” country, suggesting that the warmth of Zimbabwe can overcome it all.

“I have roots in South Africa, I have ties in England as well, but Zimbabwe has my heart,” she said.

Despite leaving the warmth of Zimbabwe for the literally cooler climate of Michigan, Matinde says she feels at home at the University. In fact, Matinde said she feels the United States, Ann Arbor included, is more similar to Zimbabwe than its perceived cultural kin, England.

Though it was her second college of choice — her first choice was Columbia University — Matinde said she is happy with her decision to attend the University of Michigan and is enjoying the friendliness of students and school spirit at football games.

“I’ve honestly loved it so far … when I got here, it all made sense why I wasn’t supposed to start at Columbia. Honestly, it’s probably the best decision I’ve made for myself in my life,” she said.

Matinde also said her educational transition has been fairly smooth and that she has learned to think critically. She added that her visits back to Zimbabwe have shown her the value of calling yet another city home.

“I have changed, but that’s not bad. If you’ve gone away to a place, and you come back the same person, that’s a problem … and I feel like I’ve definitely grown,” she said.

Ecuador

Even in his fourth year at the University, LSA and Business School senior David Concha still has rare occasions when he feels the urge to greet someone in the traditional Ecuadorian fashion: a kiss on the right cheek.

Hailing from Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, Concha grew up among more than 3.3 million people and a coastline boasting sandy beaches and tropical temperatures. It sounds like a paradise, and in many aspects of his life it was.

In a culture very warm and open, Concha said he was constantly surrounded by Ecuadorians who, like his family, were born and raised in the same place. According to Concha, the Ecuadorian community is interconnected and homogeneous.

This homogeneity, of course, extends to soccer.

“That’s the only thing we do. We play, watch, smell, drink, eat soccer,” he said.

Concha said he enjoyed growing up in the city, but points out that Ecuador is still a Third World country.

Reminders of the difference between rich and poor permeated Concha’s life. He saw regions of households with maids and drivers turn into poor areas where no one walks home alone at night and schools without desks or blackboards.

But moving past the coast and deeper into the country, Concha said the city disappears into one of his favorite areas: an almost untouched region between the Andes Mountains and the Amazon Rainforest that Concha calls “Pandora,” where images of active volcanoes complement soaring rock walls — a reminder of a more peaceful, natural country.

Now, on the University’s campus for the past four years, Concha's culture has changed to embrace sports like American football — a game he repeatedly emphasizes he had never seen and didn’t know “a thing about” until attending the Michigan vs. Appalachian State football game his freshman year.

Despite losing football records, Concha has remained devoted to the sport, traveling to almost every college football stadium and witnessing big games with his friends. These experiences, as well as the sports culture in Ann Arbor, make the University of Michigan the right place for Concha.

“I really feel that a college life anywhere else in the world wouldn’t give me the opportunity to experience all these things in the same place,” he said.

Though Concha has adjusted to life in Ann Arbor and has made friends easily, he said he still maintains a large group of close friends who are from Latin America.

Other cultural practices he continues include drinking scotch — the beverage of choice for Ecuadorian men — and a search for healthy foods, a task Concha said is almost impossible when navigating the campus eateries.

Though Concha ultimately plans to return to Ecuador, he says he has enjoyed his college experience and plans to maximize the remainder of it.

“As much I love my home, I love this place too … I’m enjoying it very much, and I never regret a single moment coming here,” he said.

Pakistan

Comparing his recent North American experience to a childhood in Pakistan, Engineering junior Abran Khalid notes one large difference that to some may seem trivial: light.

Khalid spent his childhood in Lahore, Pakistan — the second largest city in the country — where electric light was sometimes precious due to occasional outages. He lived in a busy neighborhood with narrow alleys and bazaars he described as akin to scenes from a Bollywood movie.

Completing the city’s vibrant picture, Khalid discussed games of cricket played on the streets. Kites were often seen in the air, with children gluing powdered glass to kite strings for the popular, yet currently banned, sport of kite fighting. The resulting cuts on participants' hands and fingers from tightly holding the string were the reward for knocking another kite out of the air.

As Khalid explained, life in the city revolved around food, with shops opening at 5:30 a.m. to meet the demands of the hundreds of people waiting in line to be served. Inside, a shopkeeper would diligently make lassi, a drink made from yogurt and water, with their hands.

As a teenager, Khalid moved from the city streets to suburbia. Though the scenery was beautiful, Khalid said there were no more cricket games or kites flown in the air. And though suburbia included large lawns and expensive cars, it was far removed from the numbers of children and adults living in poverty who Khalid became accustomed to seeing.

“I (had) stopped noticing beggars on the street,” Khalid said. “It’s something you get used to.”

Attending McGill University in Canada before returning to Pakistan and later coming to the University of Michigan in 2010, Khalid said he was “extremely, extremely excited” to begin classes at the University. And as he approaches a new semester, Khalid said he feels he has grown and changed from his cricket playing days in Pakistan.

“I feel that I’m much more independent than I was back home and much more confident,” Khalid said.

Khalid said he feels lucky to have the opportunity to study abroad in the United States. It’s an educational environment far different from that of his own country, where he claims women are lucky if they reach an undergraduate education, and lives are devastated by floods.

“Education is free here, education in Pakistan is not free. It’s very, very limited … I feel that even if you have basic quality of education that still motivates you to do something,” Khalid said.

Balling his hand in his fist and striking the table, Khalid said he is determined to complete his education and eventually return to Pakistan to teach children about world religions and historical events that most have never heard of, like World War II. But most of all, like his friends who have returned to Pakistan, Khalid wants to see a change.

“I want to do the same because we all have to put in effort to bring about a change. It has to change sooner rather than later,” he said.

Jordan

Engineering sophomore Issa Fakhoury jokes that in his hometown of Amman, Jordan, he doesn’t live in a tent or ride a camel to school.

In fact, when looking out his window at home, Fakhoury saw a street that looks a lot like a modern American city — one brimming with cars and the vibrant lighting from franchised restaurants. It's even possible to hear the dim humming of Western films and television shows in neighboring homes.

But each modern household contains a family, a set of principles and traditions. For Fakhoury, it's this close-knit community that makes the large city a hometown and brings Jordan to life.

In his community made up of friends, family, cousins and cousins of cousins, news travels fast and, as Fakhoury says, almost everything is public knowledge.

“It’s a smaller community, you feel like everyone knows each other. It seems like wherever you go, you’re going to see someone you know and everyone knows what’s going on, which is a good thing and a bad thing,” he said.

But Fakhoury thrived on this proximity as he met for Friday lunches with one set of grandparents and spent Tuesday with the other. In between visits, Fakhoury found time to play soccer (or football, as he calls it) and attend a private school in the city.

Though he lived a modern life, the ancient city of Petra is only three hours away, with stone buildings surrounded by roads busy with the traffic of donkeys and camels. As one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, the stone buildings of Petra are one of Fakhoury’s favorite places in the country. They represent the older culture he carries with him.

Bringing his culture from Petra’s ancient streets to the ivy-covered buildings of the University, Fakhoury still likes to maintain a connection with his country — waking up at 7 a.m. to watch soccer games in Jordan and reading about current events and listening to Jordanian radio stations, which Fakhoury admits are often playing American music.

And even after he’s attended American football games and weathered the freshman 15 — which he jokes was actually 15 kilos — Fakhoury said he still feels some of that freshman uncertainty that initially led him to the University.

“I never knew what I was going to be. I still don’t know what I want to do really. But I wanted to come here, I wanted to get a different experience,” he said.

Malaysia

Last semester, LSA freshman Zera Eri Arika Zulkifli celebrated her first snowfall by creating a snowman and snow angels with her friends. It was one of many firsts for Zulkifli, who is accustomed to the climate of her home city, Ipoh, Malaysia, where a constant warm rain falls from the skies.

“We (felt) kind of kiddish,” Zulkifli said, laughing.

For Zulkifli, the island of Penang, which connects to the coast of Malaysia by a long bridge, is a haven. Water skiing on the Malacca Strait and lying on the island’s sandy beaches is how Zulkifli and her friends unwind from the stressful school year.

Last fall, however, Zulkifli found herself in a much different setting. Walking into her first day of class at the University, unsure but excited, Zulkifli said she was shocked by the openness of students, both in their friendliness toward her and their frequent questioning of the professor. Faced with these friendly students, Zulkifli said she was forced to overcome her own shyness and adapt to the classroom environment.

“I was really nervous like, ‘am I going to fit in?,' but it went well,” she said.

Though she describes the Malaysian people as reserved and quiet, Zulkifli enthusiastically described the adventures she wants to have in college, which include trying ballroom dancing, rock climbing and bungee jumping.

But even after one semester at the University, Zulkifli has had many new experiences. She tried her first burrito earlier this month and her first cup of coffee during finals week last semester.

Still, Zulkifli cultivates her home culture on campus, living with some other students from Malaysia and participating in a Malaysian club, which celebrates festivals for the three main ethnicities in Malaysia — Chinese, Malay and Indian.

According to Zulkifli, the acceptance of different multicultural clubs is similar to the acceptance of diversity in Malaysia, where people from different cultural backgrounds co-exist.

This acceptance has helped Zulkifli adjust to new experiences and a life far different from the one she knew before.

“I’m so far away from home and my friends here … they make me feel like home,” she said.