Foreign students struggle to adjust at Ithaca College
By Meagan McGinnes
Freshman Charles De-Ganga’s dimples deepened as he beamed with laughter. His smile is contagious. This winter break was the first time in six years his entire family was able to celebrate the holidays together at home under Nigeria’s hot sun, a welcome change in weather from Ithaca. He craved the spicy, savory food that awaited him, as well as his comical nieces and nephews who never fail to raise his spirits.
With a large furry hat on her head and a computer on her lap, freshman “E” Zhu let out a deep sigh of frustration. She was doing a project with a paper still to edit, and she still had more material to read. She realized sleep was not an option. An international student from China, Zhu chose Ithaca College because she imagined its lack of diversity would make it easier to completely immerse herself in American culture.
What neither student was expecting was the severity of culture shock they would experience. The cultures of their home countries and Ithaca differ in more areas than just cuisine, behavior and communication. The pressures of being a first-year student are overwhelming enough, but for international students, sometimes the stress is suffocating.
Although the campus seems to be filled with laughter and smiles among large groups of friends, for some international and American students, the college is disappointing. Ithaca College’s overall retention rate of 86 percent is less than the national average retention rate of colleges and universities, which is 90 percent.
Some students say the college is falling short on the support systems international students need in order to prosper in this country. It is understandable that there can be no program that diverts every hardship or transitional obstacle from these students’ lives, but it is possible to help some stressful situations that may be too much to handle emotionally.
“It is easy to feel lost,” said Shanshan Mei, a freshman journalism major from China. “I think every international student has felt lost or feels lost in the crowd at some point.”
Because international students only make up 2 percent of the entire college’s population, they often stick together in efforts to reduce culture shock. This feeling of solidarity hits close to home for Zhu. She has few American friends because she feels sometimes it is hard to communicate with them, and not just because of the language barrier. Many American students do not know what it is like to be completely thrown into a different culture far away from family and friends, so they cannot relate to the international students.
Diana Dimitrova, director of Ithaca College’s International Student Services for the past 10 years, personally understands the hardships of culture shock because she is originally from Greece. She said the obstacles facing international students versus American students are numerous.
“I just hope people don’t feel that just because they couldn’t pull themselves out of the feeling of culture shock that something is really wrong with them, because it’s not,” Dimitrova said. “Sometimes, it is just too much all at once.”
Upon arrival at campus, the college is legally required to have a special orientation for international students. The introduction and greeting session lasts a total of 10 days, with a general focus on the academic system. After this orientation, however, the only requirement of the college is updating the student visa paperwork every semester. These students are given slightly more than a week before being thrust into an entirely different world for four years without so much as a required check-up from the institution that enrolled them. Students have to take the step to seek out help from people like Dimitrova.
“No one actually asks me, ‘Hey, how have you been?’” Zhu said.
Even so, international students rarely transfer, perhaps because of the stress and difficulty of changing visa statuses. As freshman Adeesha Ekanayake from Sri Lanka said, it can be like “jumping through hoops” to get to America, so once here, one appreciates the freedom and the efforts it took so much more. Many students would rather work through culture shock than transfer schools or go back to their original countries.
The stresses of maintaining the student visa and legal statuses on top of the first-year experience can be overwhelming.
“Being a college student away from home is tough, especially when people don’t take the time to get to know you,” said junior Romi Ezzo, student coordinator of the international orientation for two years.
The college’s International Student Services is based on the idea of treating everyone, international and American students, equally in almost all ways. The application process to get into the college is the same, and once here, students are basically on their own like all other incoming students.
“IC categorizes everyone as the same, but they aren’t looking at the human aspect of it,” De-Ganga said.
One program the college does offer specifically to international students, as well as for those who want to learn about other cultures, is the Housing Opportunities for a Multicultural Experience, or HOME, Program in Terrace 3.
“People here are tolerant but not aware of other cultures and perspectives,” De-Ganga said. “By bridging the gap, it would help both sides.”
Ezzo said students in the HOME Program were willing to appreciate other cultures, including languages, cuisines and interesting facts. For this reason, he moved into this dorm after his first semester freshman year. Unfortunately, only six international students lived in the HOME Program as of last semester. The rest of the dorm is filled with scholarship recipients or students who had no other housing to choose from.
“HOME wasn’t the home for international students anymore, and you could tell, which is why I don’t live there anymore,” Ezzo said.
One organization that still remains a resource for the international community is the International Club.
“The international population depends on your definition of who and what is an international,” said Dimitrova, who is also the club’s advisor. “Our office works with the most narrowest [students with visas], but also broader versions. The International Club does the same.”
The club’s mission is to bring awareness to diversity and different cultures, connecting international students with local students and vice-versa. The organization also holds functions to educate and discuss different cultures and international events around the world. They provide resources to students, such as summer storage, but also social events such as a trip to the Syracuse mall over fall break.
Senior Amanda Wong, the club’s public relations chair, believes the club is a start for counteracting culture shock in the sense that is a jumping off point for meeting new people.
“It’s kind of like family,” Dimitrova said. “Even if you are not there all the time, you can come or not come, but is not contingent on anything like that. We are here when students need.”
Wong said, however, that it is important to remember the club is not strictly for international students.
“It is only going to be productive if international and non-international students come together to talk,” Wong said.
Despite the International Club, many of the students continue to feel isolated from the rest of the college community and sense an invisible barrier because of their international backgrounds. Wong says students should remember they are not alone. The things they are experiencing are not only limited to international students, but to the entire college community. Wong personally has lived in four different countries.
“Regardless of how far you’ve traveled, living abroad from family and home is a difficult experience,” she said.
Dimitrova encourages international students to work through the cultural difficulties.
“Remember this will pass, and then it will hit you again, and then it will pass,” she said. “It is a cyclical thing.”
De-Ganga agrees and says that it does get better. He pushed through finals week last semester with his eye on the prize of returning home. The trip back was rejuvenating, allowing him to come back to the college with radiant energy.
Similar to the heat of Nigerian food, De-Ganga said, “International students are like the spice to the meal of the public community.”
Meagan McGinnes is a freshman journalism major who can’t handle spicy Nigerian food. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.