Amid the excitement and bustle of the first few weeks of college, it’s easy for us to focus on our own experiences; between figuring out travel, the stressful (and hot) move-in process, and putting together our class schedule, we can get caught up in the personal drama that is the start of school. We tend to forget the struggles of other students—especially those that face additional hurdles when starting here. For a lot of international students, the difficulties of moving in and getting settled are more protracted and even more stressful. First-year international students have to come to campus earlier than the rest of us and lack the kind of domestic support system that many are lucky to have. Being international at the University comes with its own set of unique challenges, from the very start of the process.
“I thought I would cry,” Naraa Altai ’22 said of leaving home. “But I didn’t, which is weird. I didn’t really feel like I was actually leaving.”
Altai’s journey from her home in Mongolia was anything but simple. After a 12-hour layover in Beijing, and another 12 hours on the plane coming here, she struggled to find the little pieces of comfort that a lot of us take for granted.
“When I first got into the room I was like, I have nothing,” she said. “I have this little stuffed bunny that I really love, and I tried so hard to get here and I couldn’t fit it in my luggage…. Like there were some shelves, and I had nothing to fill the shelves with.”
Ann Zhang ’22 also had difficulties with transportation. She explained to the Argus that her father and uncle had to work toward driving certifications in order to rent a car to get to campus—a difficult process that proved stressful for everyone. Once she finally made it to the University, she quickly took note of the differences between her experience and those of the general student population as they moved in. She talked about seeing families with their fully loaded cars drive in for the first day, describing it as what look like a family field trip.
“I think it is pretty interesting to see how the structure of the U.S. families are like—like how kids are reacting with their parents,” she explained. “Maybe they are slightly different than what we’re used to back in China.”
Zhang arrived with the other international students on Aug. 26, three days before the rest of the first-year class made their way to campus. Over the course of these three days, there was a separate orientation, geared toward preparing international students for the adjustment. Sofia Sperber ’22 and Annika Velez ’22 agreed that the intimacy and privacy of a few days dedicated only to international students helped bring the group together and stay off feelings of missing home. They explained that being considerate of other students’ international backgrounds was a theme of their orientation, but expressed confusion that this same theme wasn’t a part of the general orientation once the rest of the first years arrived. Sperber shared the feeling that the general student move-in and orientation felt like a very different event.
“The main move-in day felt so much more ceremonial than our move-in day,” she observed, noting that it was helpful to already be settled in as the chaos ensued.
This transition, from campus being inhabited only by international students to being filled with the rest of the class of 2022, was jarring for some of other first year international students as well.
“Once new students came in, I could no longer spot the other international students,” Altai explained. “I was like, where are the international students? At first it was really scary because—I’m sorry if I am being offensive—because it was like all the American white people, and no one else so I was like kind of…I felt like I was being way too different. Like I’m so not one of them.”
Altai found that the orientation staple of residence hall meetings helped her start to feel more connected to the general student population. In her mind, it helped the two groups become less separate.
But even as student groups began to merge, Altai couldn’t help but notice that the advantages of growing up in the United States also leaked into classes.
“Being in classes—that’s like the challenging part,” she expressed, trying to explain the fundamental differences between a Mongolian education and a Wesleyan one. “In Mongolia we are not really asked to speak up. We are not asked to read something and then like think critically on that and just process the information and say what you think.”
She went on to explain that she has been faced with the challenge of keeping up with discussions in classes primarily filled with American students. She mentioned that many students will reference U.S. history that, although might be common knowledge for a U.S. citizen, is not part of history class in Mongolia. For Altai and many other international students, having to do extra research or pick up on new ways to approach learning is an important and challenging part of this transition.
Along with these subtle differences are the not-so-hidden cornerstones of establishing independence. The students we talked to found that they shared many of the same struggles with everyone in their first year—doing laundry for the first time, figuring out how to deposit and withdraw money from the bank, and navigating the new experience of being separated from their family.
“It’s different than back at home, because they kinda lose some of the control of me,” Zhang said. “I think this is leaving space for us, but also sometimes building barriers.”
She admitted to growing more comfortable with the distance, and enjoying the new independence it brought with it—including the ability to avoid arguments if they come up.
“I don’t know what my mom thinks, but…” Zhang said, laughing.
Homesickness, too, is a shared experience for everyone here.
“It’s hard for me to put it in perspective right now, because everything feels like I am on a trip,” Velez told The Argus.
She won’t see her parents back in the Philippines until winter break.
“I’m going to get homesick during parents weekend for sure,” Velez said.
Despite all of this, these international students are working hard to make the University feel more like a place that they can call their own.
“Now it’s like…I’m kinda getting like, ‘Home is really far away,’ like this is home now,” Altai explained optimistically. “It’s actually scary. But at the same time, I’m excited. Like, I can do this!”
Spencer Arnold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tessa Ury can be reached at email@example.com.