Standing in a crowded airport terminal, Konstantinos Ghirtis was struck by “the unprecedented feeling that it is just you and your two suitcases.” He had decided to leave his home country of Greece and enter life at the University where he said he found the subtleties of life in America would surprise him.
One of his first stops was the International Center, where he took part in an extensive three-week orientation program. Students can choose to attend seminars on everything from how to find a job to common idioms used in academic speech.
Rodolfo Altamirano, director of the International Center, said he feels one of the greatest barriers international students face is xenophobia from professors, students and the community at large.
Altamirano said many students can be overwhelmed when they first get to the United States. Following a speech he made at a function for international students, Altamirano said he received an anonymous e-mail that read: “I felt sad when the receptionist became impatient. I felt upset when nobody wanted to pair with me in the lab. People think I have imperfect mind because of my imperfect speaking.”
But Raphaelle Granger, a French Business Student, had a very different experience. “In America, people are used to immigrants, so the accent doesn’t matter as much,” she said.
Altamirano said members of the University community should not assume adjustment to life in Ann Arbor is easy.
“We, as part of the University, have to be sensitive to the learning needs of our students. … We need to understand what is an effective learning environment for them,” he said. Altamirano said some of the biggest changes international students need to adjust to could be as simple as cafeteria food. “The food is edible but so bland,” said Divya Parambi, an Engineering sophomore from India.
Even eating outside the cafeteria requires adjustments. “Even the Indian food here is too mellow,” Parambi said.
Raphaelle Granger, a French Business student, switched to frequent chocolate bars from a diet of mostly yogurt, fruits and vegetables. She said it is simply too expensive here to eat the kind of foods she is accustomed to.
Parambi said she gets around this by sneaking Paratha, a flat round bread, among other native foods, into the country past customs officials.
International students encounter differences in the classroom as well. They find themselves expected to be active participants where before they often deferred to the authority of the professor.
Granger said she used to spend 30 to 40 hours a week in lecture “listening rigidly,” not asking questions or discussing the material. “In France you mainly repeat theories and ideas, here they push you a little bit to try to get you to think outside of the box,” she said.
The idea of a discussion section and taking a more active role in the learning process is a completely new concept and one to which it takes time to adjust.
“People talk very loud here. You have to scream to be heard,” Granger said.
More informal settings are new and take some getting used to. Parambi said she would not have been caught calling a teacher by their first name for anything, and even now when e-mailing professors she still addresses them formally.