Long Way From Home
An increasing number of international students are being drawn to Haverford by the promise of intellectual exploration, academic rigor, and close-knit community. Once here, they must also contend with unfamiliar food and strange American social customs, and a climate that may be way outside their comfort zone. Easing the intercultural adjustment on campus is a robust support program for students from abroad.
Saket Sekhsaria long knew he wanted to attend college in the U.S., attracted by the American focus on the liberal arts. In India, he says, the majority of institutions of higher learning don’t offer liberal arts programming. Students are expected to choose an area of study as teenagers and to stick with it through their college years and beyond.
“Liberal arts requires taking many different courses, and that allows you to explore who you are and to find what interests you. Sometimes that can be something you never even thought of before,” says Sekhsaria. “I wanted to go to a place that not only allows me to experiment but pushes me to experiment.”
That’s how he became a member of the College’s Class of 2020, arriving on campus in August to attend the International Student Orientation program. It was his first time in the United States. He’d seen the campus in online photos but still found himself struggling to describe Haverford’s leafy environs and academic architecture to his family back home.
“You know how sometimes you don’t have words in your language because you’ve never experienced anything like it, so you can’t describe it? This is like that,” Sekhsaria says.
“I’m just getting used to it now. … The Duck Pond was my favorite. If you can have a pond just for ducks on a campus of a college, that seems like a good college.”
All new students need time to adjust to campus life, but imagine living and studying in a place thousands of miles from home and family.
On the social front, the customs of the natives may be hard to read. The food may be too bland, or too spicy. The climate may be something you’ve never encountered before, and even telling the temperature requires learning a whole new system.
On the academic front, the grading system is unfamiliar. The work and study load may be, too. In some cases, students are being taught for the first time in a language not native to them.
Haverford is doing all it can to smooth the transition for the increasing number of international students choosing a Quaker-influenced education. The International Student Services Office, created in 2007, has added staff and developed a comprehensive handbook geared toward the unique needs of students from abroad. In August, before the start of Customs and classes, all international students attend a special three-day orientation designed to welcome them while addressing any concerns.
“Ultimately our goal is not to focus on what may seem foreign,” says Lu Chen, a senior biology major with a health studies minor, who is originally from China. Chen is one of 17 International Student Resource Persons (ISRPs) who help lead the orientation and then guide the new students throughout the year. “We want to show the international students that even though their homes and families are far away, they have a community here of people who have gone through the same transition as them or are going through the same thing now.”
In 1985, there were about 35 international students on campus, according to a College publication. Today, there are about 150, says Jess Lord, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid. That includes foreign nationals and students who may have U.S. citizenship but are coming to campus from a home overseas.
About 14 percent of the entering freshman class comes from outside the United States, says Lord. By comparison, international students made up about 4.5 percent of freshmen in 2005.
Haverford’s international students come from 28 different countries, with the largest number coming from Asian countries, particularly China and Korea. There are nine students from India, about a dozen from Europe, a handful from Africa, and two from Iran. This year’s incoming class includes at least one student each from New Zealand, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
The College is making a conscious effort to increase its international student population, according to Lord, who says a diverse global community on campus helps all students “expand their worldview, engage with others who have had different life experiences … and develop within themselves the capacity to embrace difference.
“If we imagine ourselves to be an institution that helps students develop their intellectual and personal potential and prepares them to impact the world, how could we not then imagine striving for a truly global community?”
Associate Professor of Political Science Craig Borowiak says that diversity in the student body—in language, experiences, and country of origin—broadens conversations inside and outside the classroom. “It enhances the discussion and challenges the students,” says Borowiak, noting how important the international perspective is in the classes he teaches on globalization. “Students engage material from what they know, so there’s a possibility of an American echo chamber. International students help cut through that.”
Sekhsaria from India, was joking about the Duck Pond being an indicator of the school’s quality and perhaps a reason to attend Haverford. In fact, he and his fellow international students were careful and strategic in choosing an American college.
To someone living overseas, the choices seem endless, he says, and some people base their decisions on lists of U.S. college rankings or a family member’s experience.
Sekhsaria researched a lot of American colleges and universities. It was his sister, a student at Princeton University, who recommended he consider Haverford. He did, and quickly realized the College offered everything he was looking for academically and socially, he says.
“I love being part of a community. I didn’t want to go to a place with thousands of people,” he says. “And if it ever feels claustrophobic, there are the other colleges nearby.”
For now, though, the campus seems enormous. “I lost my way a couple of times, but people are nice enough to guide me around,” he says.
Fortunately, the ISRPs are always on the job. During International Student Orientation, they give campus tours and lead get-to-know-you exercises while also helping the new students open bank accounts, figure out how campus jobs can affect their immigration status, and talk about the ways in which U.S. students may differ from their classmates at home.
After orientation, the ISRPs maintain a close relationship with the new community members. “They have each other, and they have us as their new friends and family,” Chen says. “If they experience culture shock or feel homesick, we are ready to be their support systems.”
During an orientation session on intercultural adjustment, two ISRPs— sophomore Maelys Gluck, from France, and junior Ishaan Prinz, who has lived in Singapore for the last decade—addressed serious issues like underage drinking and consent in romantic relationships, as well as lighter subjects like American slang and behaviors.
Talking about friendships, Prinz explained that the word “friend” in the U.S. can have a variety of meanings. “It can be very casual. You can meet someone at a party and then they introduce you to someone else and say, ‘Hey, here’s my friend,’ and you think, ‘Oh, I’m so popular,’ ” he said. “The word can sometimes be used a little superficially and shouldn’t be taken to heart.”
Americans are also prone to asking rhetorical questions and making statements that shouldn’t be taken at face value, the group leaders said, observing that when people say “Hi. How are you?” as they pass on campus, they’re not looking for a thoughtful response like “I have a headache” or “My classes are killing me.”
“Before you’ve had a chance to answer, they’re walking away,” said Prinz, as his fellow ISRPs made it clear that it is social custom, not rudeness, driving that response. “Respond, acknowledge it, and move on.”
Gluck built on the discussion of what may seem to those newly arrived to this country to be confusing American social norms.
“Lots of Americans say, ‘Just drop by anytime’ or ‘Let’s get together soon,’ ” she said. “Don’t take that as an invite. It’s just politeness. Don’t show up at their door.” Regarding body language and personal space, Gluck counseled: “Don’t stand too close to people when you talk to them. If they step back, don’t step forward.”
First-year student Victoria Merino, from Mexico City, shared that she’d already made a mistake after being introduced to someone on campus, leaning in to give kisses on both cheeks as the French do. Merino, a dual citizen who also holds a Swiss passport, just returned from a gap year in France.
“I messed up on that one,” she said with a laugh.
Gluck reassured her: “Here, it’s hugging. It’s OK. I do it all the time.”
Merino, who attended middle school in the U.S. and high school in Mexico, says she still felt disoriented when she arrived on campus. International Student Orientation “has been the most settling thing for me,” she says. “I know it’s not just me going through this change in cultural settings.”
When Merino was considering colleges, she got swept up in the idea of going to an Ivy League institution or “one of those type” schools. One of her teachers, a graduate of Bryn Mawr, told her that focusing on prestige was a mistake—the most important thing was to choose the right school for her.
“That’s when I started my research to find where I could be the best version of myself,” Merino says. “I focused on liberal arts colleges and their values and the tight communities.”
Haverford won her over with its class size and its Honor Code, along with the quality of its students and education.
“I realized I didn’t need to go to a university where I would be lost in a lecture hall,” Merino says. “I needed to go to a place where I could meet my teachers and get to know the people in my class very well.”
International Student Resource Person Alex Bernas ’19, who grew up in the Philippines, also talked about how the school’s Honor Code attracted her to Haverford. Her father, José Bernas ’82, used to tell her a story about a professor who lived on campus but never locked his door and left his valuables out in the open.
“I was really amazed,” she says, “not just at the professor’s trust, but in the people that had every temptation in the world to do the wrong thing but still chose to do what’s right.”
Gluck, the ISRP from France, knew early on that she wanted to attend college abroad. French institutions of higher learning, she says, “are too restrictive, and you have to know after high school what you want to do. … My goal since ninth grade has been to study here.”
Sophomore Moeka Noda says higher education in Japan works in a similar way: In high school, students apply to specific college departments which have unique entrance exams they must take. The emphasis is on a “professional education,” she says. “Without experiencing classes, I had no idea what field of study suited my interest. To find my own way to see the world, and to design my own learning, I chose to come to the U.S.”
Before arriving on campus, Noda thought she would major in politics. After her first semester, she thought psychology would be a good major for her. Then she took a writing seminar focused on Philadelphia history and a class looking at the growth and structure of cities. Now she wants to focus her study on city design and architecture.
Noda has no close family in the U.S., so the bonding exercises during International Student Orientation did a lot to ease her anxieties as a first-year student. She met her closest friend during that week and says the support she received from the ISRPs was critical. One month after she had arrived on campus, her grandfather died. She shared the loss with her Honor Code Orienteer.
“He hugged me, so I felt relieved,” says Noda, who in September had an essay published in The Japan News about her experiences at Haverford. The piece, one in a series of reports by Japanese students studying abroad, was headlined “Pennsylvania School a Laboratory for Community Building” and recalled the opening event of her freshman-year Customs Week, when a dean told the gathered students: “Be vulnerable.” Wrote Noda, “My heart started beating fast. ‘That’s why I came here,’ I thought.”
Prinz, the ISRP who has lived in Singapore for the last decade, followed in his parents’ footsteps when he chose to attend college in the U.S. His father is from Germany and his mother is from India, but they met while attending college in Massachusetts. “They both had an amazing experience,” says Prinz, “It made me really excited to go to college in the U.S.”
Haverford struck him as a place that was “incredibly academically rigorous with a very supportive and inclusive student body.”
“I really wanted a balanced college experience,” says Prinz, who plays on the college’s tennis team. “Haverford is a well-rounded place. It’s not just academics. It’s not just athletics.”
Yet, there are some aspects of American life that he still struggles with, like those long winters. “I think when it gets dark early, your mood changes and there are definitely times you feel low-energy and lonely,” he says.
The good news? “There are so many resources, and you always have a group of people to go to at any time.”
When Prinz mentioned the weather at the intercultural adjustment session, another student jumped in to ask if the U.S. only uses Fahrenheit to measure temperature. Some of the students pretended to shudder when Prinz said yes. He tried to teach them a way to convert Fahrenheit measurements to Celsius.
“It’s times two plus 32,” Prinz said.
“No, it’s 9/5 plus 32,” someone else interjected.
It’s hard to be exact, Prinz said, but it’s good to remember that in Celsius, water freezes at zero degrees. In Fahrenheit, it freezes at 32 degrees.
“That’s so weird…” Merino said, shaking her head.
“I know. It’s horrible,” Prinz assured her. “But you get used to it.”
And even without knowing the exact temperature, Bernas said that going to school in a place that fully embraces all four seasons can be an amazing experience for those coming from other parts of the world.
Bernas had her first real experience with snow last year. She was so excited, she said, “I was knocking on people’s doors, singing [the song from Frozen], ‘Do you want to build a snowman?’ And they were like, ‘Please. No.’ ”