Imported Talent

International students enrich Tech's cultural and academic life

by Jill O. Elswick

If you've ever been to Disneyland, you probably remember the "It's a Small World" ride. Your rail car enters a dark tunnel, where dancing marionettes sing a catchy tune about international unity as you slowly wind your way back toward daylight. It is this sing-song view of the world that Lyn Gray, Virginia Tech's director of the University Office of International Programs, wants to move beyond.

Gray is working on a database of Tech international students willing to guest lecture in campus classrooms about their country and its impact on a particular field of study. Emphasizing the emerging global economy, Gray wants Tech students to experience more substance and less song and dance when they encounter people from other parts of the world.

Giving an international focus to the curriculum at Tech is one of six strategic directives the university implemented four years ago. Provost Peggy Meszaros says, "To be a literate, well-educated college graduate, you must have a working knowledge of the world."

The centerpiece of the plan, says Meszaros, is to recruit more undergraduate international students to enrich the campus both academically and culturally. Tech now has almost 500 undergraduate international students, more than any previous year. And graduate international students, around 1,100 of them, already account for about 20 percent of Tech's graduate population; this percentage is typical of graduate schools nationwide.
Undergraduate international students are not eligible for U.S. scholarships or financial aid. Nor are they usually awarded such help from their native lands. But many countries realize the benefits of sending their brightest graduate students abroad on scholarships to gain knowledge they will use at home.

Admissions standards for undergraduate international students are the same as for domestic students. In addition, all international students must demonstrate proficiency in English by passing the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

Amy Wang, who came from Taiwan to study veterinary medicine, is pleased to find that her American male colleagues treat her as an equal.

About 45 percent of Tech's international students, both undergraduate and graduate, major in engineering. The rest pursue an array of majors, including veterinary medicine, economics, computer science, biology, business, forestry, and agriculture. Tech's international students currently represent a total of 108 countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe.

Drawn by Tech's reputation

Why do international students choose Tech? For engineering majors, it is Tech's reputation as an engineering school that attracts scholars worldwide. "Virginia Tech is a famous school in Taiwan," says Kevin Mou, a grad student in industrial and systems engineering.

Other students are drawn by courses of study that are available at only a handful of universities. Tech's wood science program, for example, is one of only three such programs in the United States. International students also cite the natural beauty of the mountains and the friendly, safe environment of Blacksburg as important factors in their decision.

Having a friend or relative who graduated from Tech is also an influential factor. Lee Drowne, assistant director of undergraduate admissions, cites word-of-mouth recruitment as the university's most important marketing tool for attracting international students.

Last but not least are the college rankings. International students read Barrons, Petersons, and U.S. News & World Report. "They are as up-to-date as our domestic students," says Drowne.

Cultural tremors

When Tech's international students first arrive in the U.S., many land at the Roanoke airport. Their first experience of culture shock is often in realizing the automobile-dependent nature of life in America. Most international students come from countries where the rail system serves even the most remote village. To get to Blacksburg from Roanoke, they must go by bus or car.

Here's where Virginia Tech's Cranwell International Center and the Council of International Student Organizations (CISO) step in. Together, these two organizations run an airport pick-up service to bring international students to Blacksburg. Once in Blacksburg, CISO volunteers and Cranwell Center staff members provide individual attention to the students at a special welcome center. Each international student receives a packet of information that includes a campus map, university policies, essays on adjusting to American culture, and information on how to register for classes and obtain a Social Security card and Tech I.D.

The students are now on their own, although the Cranwell Center continues to be a valuable resource. They begin to revise the false perceptions of America they received from the news, television shows, and movies. "All you hear about in New Zealand is the crime," says Jared Wayman, a grad student in forestry. Civil engineering student Saral Shodhan was surprised to meet Americans with strong family ties. "In India, we picture America as a broken family," he says.

"Fast-talking" Southerners pose a challenge
The first challenge for most international students upon coming to the U.S. is the language. Although they have all studied English, it's difficult to understand the "fast-talking" Americans, many of whom in Blacksburg have unfamiliar Southern accents.

Then there's the problem of British English versus American English. "We speak a mixture of Amercian and 'Her Majesty's' English," says Murugendra Chigateri, a grad student in industrial and systems engineering from India. Valerio Viti, a Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering from Italy, had to put away his British slang, saying "Hey, man!" instead of "Hello, mate!" and "bye" instead of "cheers."

Indian student Sunil Vaswani likes the freedom of dress in America. He puts on a coat and tie for test days; his American friend, Michael Love, likes to dress down.

American idioms and slang also baffle international students. "It stinks here," said a disgruntled American student, commenting on atmosphere, not olfactory, to Tatiana Fournadjieva, a junior in apparel design from Bulgaria. "What, it smells bad?" she asked, wondering "Is it me?"

Socializing across cultures

International students are generally eager to make American friends, but this can be a challenge because of language and cultural barriers. CISO president Chitiappa Muthanna, a Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering from India and Zambia, advises international students to make the first move: "Go socialize; find out what it's all about. Go to a football game, even if you understand nothing about the game." Kim Beisecker, interim director of the Cranwell Center, cautions international students that it may be difficult to develop in-depth friendships with Americans because although they tend to be friendly, it's frequently a reserved kind of friendliness.

If making friends is a challenge, dating is perhaps even more so, at least for male international students. "You can't go out to a movie without implying that you want something from a girl," says Balasz Zombori, a Ph.D. student in wood science from Hungary. Abdullah al Masud, a Ph.D. student in economics from Bangladesh, agrees: "Inviting girls to dinner causes a problem. They think there's something beyond dinner."

Zombori and al Masud say they come from cultures in which dating is a more casual and friendly affair--a chance to get to know someone without the assumption of a goodnight kiss or the premature pressure to date one another exclusively. "Having lunches and dinners means nothing in Hungary," says Zombori. American women, says al Masud, seem to be thinking, "Get to the point," when all he expects is a tasty dinner and pleasant conversation.

Amy Wang, a grad student in veterinary medicine from Taiwan, is encouraged by the American dating scene, however. "Females have more freedom here," she says. "American boys tend to treat you as an equal."

In addition to dating, gender-based behaviors in America pose learning challenges for international students. Wang, for example, was at first surprised to see men opening doors for women. In Taiwan, she says, it is the younger people, regardless of sex, who open doors for their elders. And in India, it is not uncommon for men to express friendly affection with a hug. Not so in America, as Shodhan found out when he hugged an American friend in gratitude for helping him find an apartment. His friend tensed.

With the social challenges of adapting to American culture, it's not surprising that international students at times find themselves longing for the social ties of home. Isabel Feng, a sophomore from China, misses the bond of common ancestry she feels when she is in her native land. "We're all brothers and sisters," is an idea that is taught to Chinese children from elementary school, she says.

Al Masud also misses the strong family and social ties in Bangladesh: "I can go to my friend's house unannounced and stay for a few days. The cost of time here is greater. More people prefer to be alone."

Missing mooncakes

With missing their loved ones comes missing the food of their home countries. Wayman misses Vegemite, the yeasty, salty, dough-colored spread made familiar to Americans by the 1980s hit song "Land Down Under." Wang looks forward to the fall festival put on by the Chinese Student Association so she can eat "mooncake," a round pastry filled with sweet or salty fillings such as plum or walnut. Fournadjieva misses Bulgarian feta cheese.

Indian students above all others seem to miss the comforts of home cooking. Omar Vasnaik, a grad student in computer science, cooks his own curry and Tandoori chicken because "American food is too bland." Chigateri says American food is too sweet with few spices. Only Mexican food, say Vasnaik and Chigateri, comes close to having the kind of hot and spicy taste they crave.

Tatiana Fournadjieva, from Bulgaria, loves designing clothes but is sometimes baffled by American slang.

Another thing about food in America that international students may find puzzling is the manner in which Americans often eat it--on the run. The fast-food culture seems to discourage eating as the leisurely social event it is in other countries. Students may even bring food to eat in class, which international students generally consider disrespectful to the teacher.

Customs: dressing down, chilling out

Indeed, the classroom atmosphere is much more casual in America than in the international students' countries. Not only do American students bring food to class, they do not dress up, they frequently come in late, and they prop their feet up on empty chairs.

Even the professors behave casually, engaging in friendly banter with the students about how their weekends went. Some professors want students to call them by their first names. Furthermore, the professors are subject to evaluation by their students. This concept is a new one to most international students. "In India, the professor is supreme," says Shodhan. "He doesn't get evaluated."

Hardianto Iridiastadi, a Ph.D. student in industrial and systems engineering, observes that in America going off to college seems more of a rite-of-passage experience than it is in his native Indonesia. Young Americans tend to view the campus as the setting for their first taste of freedom from their parents–hence the casual, semi-rebellious attitudes. But in Indonesia college is "just another step," says Iridiastadi. "The students may still live with their parents."

Although Sunil Vaswani, a sophomore in business from India, is still not accustomed to the casual atmosphere of the Tech classroom, he has stopped dressing up for class every day. But he still wears a tie on test days for a psychological boost. American students give him funny looks and ask, "Are you going for an interview?" but Vaswani is not discouraged. He feels free to dress any way he likes in America. One of his friends is a punk rocker with green hair, and Vaswani doesn't have a problem with that, so why should anyone care if he wears a tie to class?

Another aspect of American academic life that is unusual to international students is that students are generally required to do their homework without helping each other. Al Masud sees this as part of America's "great sense of healthy competition" and pride in doing things by oneself. This and Tech's honor code explain why American students don't look at each other's papers when the teacher leaves the room during an exam. "In Europe, they will cheat. In Bangladesh, they will cheat," says al Masud.

The rule of "pay your own way" also applies not only to academics, but to most social events. International students are unfamiliar with the concept of "going Dutch" or the expectation that people pay for themselves when out with friends.

"Even if you're invited?" asks Schueler. In most other cultures, people take turns paying for each other.

So, after all the football games, hushed final exams, and dinner dates in Blacksburg are over, where do Tech's international students go when they graduate? Many return home to contribute their learning and skills to businesses and schools. Pavli Mykerezi, for example, is a Fulbright Fellow from Albania. He already has 20 years of experience as a top administrator in the Albanian education system, but he's at Tech to learn American methods of teaching agronomy so he can encourage large-scale agricultural production in Albania.

And all international students, no matter where they may go after they graduate from Tech, are here to absorb the experience of American democracy. Al Masud, who recently had the privilege of serving as legislative fellow to U.S. Representative Rick Boucher (D-Virginia), is impressed with America's maturity as a democracy. "People say America is a young country, but Americans have a longer history of democracy and are standing on a much more mature, well-thought-out platform," says al Masud, who wants every American to know that members of Congress really do work for a living--he's seen it with his own eyes.

As Leonard Peters, vice president for research and dean of Tech's graduate school, wrote in the August 1, 1999, edition of the Roanoke Times: "Shared education and experiences by people of all nations is the best hope of shared understanding and a shortened list of enemies--our best hope for our future." Tech welcomes international students in the hope of building a better world. It's a small world, after all.

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