On the first day of her freshman year in September 2006, LSA sophomore Erina Uozumi traveled from El Salvador to arrive on the doorstep of East Quad, the home of the University of Michigan’s Residential College and the college’s notoriously quirky residents.
Unlike most of her classmates, Uozumi hadn’t been able to visit campus before her arrival. She said she had no idea what the RC was before she came – she assumed it was just another housing option.
When she walked in to see the liberal atmosphere of East Quad, she said she started having doubts.
“I come from this little conservative country – people don’t usually dress up for Halloween for classes,” she said.
But despite the initial culture shock, Uozumi, an international student from Japan who attended American high school in El Salvador, said she’s happy with her choice to come to the University.
“I am becoming more open to things,” she said.
Uozumi’s induction to college, along with that of the University of Michigan’s 5,429 international students, was like a typical freshman’s first-day experience amplified several times over. Whereas first-year students might struggle with the awkward transition to the irregular pace of college life, international students face that in addition to the challenge of mastering a foreign culture in time to graduate. A missed step academically, which often sets back the post-college plans of students who don’t deal with language and cultural barriers, becomes that much more of a problem when home is across the ocean.
But despite the apparent challenges of attending college in another country, American colleges continue to draw increasing numbers of international students – enrollment nationwide went up 10 percent in 2007.
Among American universities, the University of Michigan has the sixth largest population of international students with 13.6 percent, according to the Institute of International Education’s 2007 Open Doors report. The report said the University of Michigan trails behind the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, Columbia University, New York University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Purdue University for international students in attendance.
The report said the top five foreign countries the University of Michigan draws its international student population from are China, India, South Korea, Taiwan and Canada, respectively. LSA sees the highest enrollment of undergraduates from other countries, followed by the College of Engineering and the Ross School of Business. The post-graduate engineering program sees the highest number of international graduate students.
International Center Director John Greisberger said most universities in the country want to attract international students, because having students from all over the world is an indicator that the university’s academic programs are strong enough to attract them. A diverse student body also helps attract the best faculty members as well, he said. But most importantly, more international students means more places worldwide where the university’s name is well known, something that any institution conscious of its prestige wants to foster.
But while the University benefits from increased attention abroad, there are no official programs for recruiting in other countries. Instead, students work to encourage others from their countries to apply to the University.
Hsien-Chang Lin, president of the Michigan Taiwanese Student Association, said his group does its own recruiting by holding workshops during the spring in Taiwanese high schools to introduce aspects of American culture and answer questions from prospective students.
While American students often look to studying abroad to experience another culture, international students are drawn to the University of Michigan for academic reasons.
Lin said he decided to study in the United States because a Ph.D. earned here is highly respected around the world. Now in his third year of the Public Health doctoral program, he said the main challenge he faced coming to the United States was the language barrier. It’s difficult to meet professors’ expectations while struggling to discern what they’re saying.
Engineering junior Sustrisno Kurniawan said he followed his older brother to the University of Michigan from Indonesia after his brother had raved about the experience. Kurniawan went to high school in Singapore, which he said had a much more rigid program of study than he’s encountered at the University. He said he likes being able to take as many credits as they think they can handle and not being forced to graduate within a specific amount of time.
In Singapore, students are expected to finish undergrad curriculums in two years and aren’t able to decide between different times for classes, Kurniawan said
But across every field of study, the one issue that consistently emerges in the classroom is difficulty understanding exchanges during class discussions. Students’ rambling questions and comments often confuse even the professor, but many international students said one poorly introduced discussion point can leave them grasping to catch up with the direction of the lecture for the rest of class.
Lin said when he doesn’t understand something a professor or classmate says during class he doesn’t want to hold up the discussion by asking for clarification. When it comes to exams, Lin said he’s afraid his professors will hold him to higher expectations than other students if he asks for extra time or clarification for story problems and essay questions.
The University of Michigan’s International Center offers English language workshops that teach how to navigate daily situations like attending professors’ office hours or doing job interviews, but the program do little to prepare international students to understand the fast speech and regional slang of a classmate from Long Island, Lin said.
Rackham student Liang Zhang, who came from China to pursue a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, said the International Center’s programs have helped him adjust, but that he’s benefited more from the individual help from his doctoral advisor Engineering Prof. Semyon Meerkov.
The center’s workshops range from filing taxes to how to gain a green card by marrying an American citizen. More social events put on by the shelter are meant to acclimate students to campus life, Greisberger said.
Uozumi said she laughed when she saw an e-mail in her inbox advertising a coffee hour at the center to discuss the “do’s and don’t’s” American dating.
“They really think that you are clueless,” she said.
But Uozumi said there were some customs she needed to have explained when she first came to Ann Arbor.
She had no idea what do the first time someone held up a palm and asked where she was from – in a confused fluster she tried to use her elbow. “I was like what the hell are you talking about,” she said.
Uozumi said she went to one workshop in the fall that explained the American tradition of Thanksgiving that included traditional food and a synopsis of the history behind the holiday.
Football is another concept that presents a mystery to many.
Zhang said he attended a workshop explaining the rules of football, which he needed to learn so he could understand football Saturdays since the game isn’t played in China. As president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Zhang now organizes parties where members of the group can watch games.
Even something as commonplace in America as going to the movie theater can offer unexpected challenges. Aysu Berk, a Rackham student from Turkey, said she wasn’t sure whether you were supposed to buy popcorn before or after seeing the movie until she picked up on the custom by watching moviegoers around her.
Where the International Center fails to provide a complete or applicable introduction to aspects of American college life, student cultural groups reach out to international students of their nationality to fill in the gaps.
The Michigan Taiwanese Student Association attempts to ease the homesickness that many international students feel by holding social functions like skate nights, Lin said. The group also provides a pick-up service from the airport and helps students from Taiwan find an apartment or house to lease.
Zhang and Uozumi both said international students tend to stick with their peers from the same nationality.
The Chinese Students and Scholars Association is hoping to do more to network with other international groups, Zhang said.
“Sometimes we’re kind of isolated from the international communities,” he said.
Having an Asian and Latino background, Uozumi said she fell out of both groups and ended up being a part of a mixed crowd of European international students.
“There’s camaraderie among international students,” she said.
Uozumi said it’s easy for her to distinguish international students from American students.
“I suppose it’s sort of like international patriotism,” she said. “It’s like your family from outside your country.”
Some students find that sense of community comforting, allowing them to focus more on their academic pursuits without having to get used to an overwhelming amount of new customs.
Rackham student Sirarat Sarntivijai found that community by joining the Thai Student Association. Sarntivijai came from Bangkok to pursue her Ph.D. in bioinformatics after receiving a full scholarship to attend the University of Michigan. She said that when she started researching schools she applied here because of the bioinformatics program’s reputation. But, she still didn’t know anyone in Ann Arbor.
Before leaving Bangkok, she contacted the Thai Student Association. Three years later, Sarntivijai is the group’s president. That Sarntivijai’s involvement with the group soon became the defining aspect of her social life isn’t uncommon for students in her situation.
It’s uncommon for a Thai student not to join the group, Sarntivijai said.
But while the availability of an immediate social network benefits international students who are unfamiliar with American social settings, it can be stifling for students who want to have a broader college experience and meet a diverse group of friends.
Berk had a similar experience to Sarntivijai’s, having contacted the Turkish Student Association before leaving for the United States and becoming the group’s president this year, but she questions whether cultural student groups might encourage international students to stick with what they know at the detriment of gaining a fuller campus experience.
“I’m not sure if it’s the right thing,” Berk said.
But she said it’s difficult to come to the University alone and try to meet people while dealing with academic pressure.
Other student groups, organized by Americans, try to bridge the divide between international student communities and American students.
Engineering senior Patrick Wong, president of the Southeast Asian Network, said most home-away-from-home student groups are about 95 percent international students who tend to interact solely with each other. Southeast Asian Network is an umbrella group that tries to promote intercultural networking between all Southeast Asians around.
The group is only a few years old, but the individual groups have been in existence for years. The Southeast Asian Network plans to host events and programs to help familiarize the different groups with each other, Ann Arbor and their common experiences, Wong said.
One campus group, International Friendship, is a branch of International Students, Inc., a national organization devoted to improving the experiences of international students at American schools.
International Students, Inc. provides an online advice under the section “Survival in the U.S.”
“The public transportation systems in most cities in the United States are not as developed as in many countries around the world,” the website warns in a section about transportation.
The website outlines the best way to go about getting medical care and banking services as well as navigating garage sales and grocery stores.
“American grocery stores contain an overwhelming variety and quantity of food. You may find it tempting to try everything in sight; however, if you have a tight budget you should make a list and purchase only those items, and not to go to the store when you are hungry (people tend to buy more when they are hungry),” the website said.
But no matter a person’s experience, four years at a foreign college provides a cultural education that goes far beyond basic knowledge of an American grocery store.
After graduation, most of the University of Michigan’s international students return to their native countries, or at least settle in places much different from Ann Arbor. There, they apply what they’ve learned in America.
“I want to make use of what I’ve learned here and bring it back to Indonesia,” Kurniawan said.
But whether they meant to or not, the university’s international students leave with more than just a prestigious degree that will open doors for them at home – there’s the rules to American football, the words to a certain fight song and the customs of American dating that may not be much use in other countries, but are hard-pressed to be unlearned.