Coming to America: Making the Grade Away From Home Sujata Banerjee Massey -------------------------------- Special to The Gazette Alexandru Tupan, who arrived in Baltimore one month ago, sits in a graduate student lounge in the Mathematics Department dreaming of really good bread--the kind with a crisp crust and chewy interior one finds easily in Romania. Koichi Hyogo, an economics graduate student who hasn't been back to Japan in three years, speaks of an eternal longing for katsudon, a breaded pork cutlet scrambled with egg, peas and onions and served atop a steaming bowl of rice. "The longer I live here, the more I realize I am typically Japanese," Hyogo sighs during a conversation in Levering Hall, where katsudon is never on the menu. "I cannot live without Japanese rice and Japanese miso. I cannot live on hamburgers! " Welcome to the world of the international student, where fantasies of home cooking are savored as much as e-mail and letters. Where the promise of fulfilling academic dreams is countered by the reality of life far from family, friends and other support systems. On various Hopkins campuses, international student populations range from highs of 31 percent at Peabody to just two undergraduates at the School of Nursing. Approximately 15 percent of the student body at Homewood is international, with the majority in graduate programs. Campus becomes home, often for many years. "Most internationals have given quite a bit of themselves just to be here," says Nicholas Arrindell, director of International Student and Scholar Services at the Homewood campus. "Students may only get home once in a four-year period-- they miss marriages, deaths, births, all the cultural celebrations that link people back together. Sometimes I think it is important for Americans to be cognizant of how much the international student gives up, rather than to feel the student is here taking all the benefits that America has to offer." "You realize you have to change your way of life," agrees Tupan, a 24-year-old doctoral student in mathematics. "In Romania, I had my friends. I may lose them because they know nothing about me, anymore." When Tupan arrived on Aug. 31, he entered his apartment at the Homewood during a heat wave. There was no air-conditioner nor fan--just another apartment mate from Romania equally stunned at the weather. "Maybe because of all the changes, I could not sleep. I was not tired, but those days I could do nothing, couldn't read a book or write letters," Tupan recalls of his arrival. What he did was walk--for hours, through the Hopkins Homewood campus, exploring. Soon he branched out to shuttles, and now can easily find his way around the Rotunda and Towson Town shopping centers. He's happy in his department--where he encourages people to call him by the more familiar "Alexander"--and is deep into preparations for a qualifying exam to start his studies. "I'm not nervous. Maybe it will be okay," he says. Hyogo, who earned a master's degree in international relations at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and is currently working toward a doctorate in economics at Homewood, says it is easier to adjust with the support of friends in the same boat. SAIS typically draws 25 to 30 percent of its student body from abroad, something Hyogo enjoyed. "At SAIS, the master's course brings together many kinds of students from all over the world, who are usually aggressive, energetic and interested in people from other countries. It was easy to become friendly with each other," he remembers. "Homewood is too large. It's difficult for Ph.D. students to expand our friendships to different departments, and we don't see each other on campus every day because we are busy with our research." While Hyogo easily made friends in the international student community here, he has been bothered by a gulf he senses between them and Americans. "I know it's a problem, but personally, I feel it is very difficult to get in touch with American students--there is a gap between us," says Hyogo. "On the American side, if a person can't speak English well it is annoying; and on the foreign student's side, it's very different to make communication. It's a relief to use the mother tongue, for both Americans and foreigners. This is why I think there is the gap." Anu Sharma, a psychologist in the Counseling Center at Homewood who specializes in cross-cultural issues, says this experience of feeling like an outsider within American culture is typical for "sojourners," people who leave their country to live or work or study elsewhere. Research shows sojourners typically pass through four stages of adjustment to life in a new country; at Hopkins, international students often rocket through the process in one semester. "The first stage is a honeymoon, characterized by lots of excitement in meeting people, feelings of happiness, maybe having reached a long-held goal to study here. Then, in early October, students move into what we call a conflict stage. You might see depression, anxiety, increased homesickness, or a wish to spend more time around people from their own country," Sharma says. These problems often stem from a heightened sensitivity to interactions with American students and faculty members. "It's a very American thing to say, "Call me anytime," or "Hi, how are you?" and then just keep walking. A lot of international students are put off by that, and they start to be more sensitive to those interactions. They might feel people in their classes or the dorms who they thought were their friends no longer have the time to sit and study with them. They start to be much more aware of the negatives and differences that exist," Sharma says. By the time midterms are over, Sharma says students typically are moving into the critical stage of adjustment in which they negotiate what has troubled them. "They decide what's important and what's not. They might say, 'Most Americans are superficial, but I do have my roommate whom I get along with very well' or 'I do have a couple of friends in classes who I can study with.' They start to achieve more of a balance," she says. By the time students return from winter break, they are usually in "recovery"--adjusted to their friendships, studies and role within an American educational community. "It doesn't mean they won't be happy about living here, it just won't be with that rosy kind of glow," Sharma says. That's been the experience of Hyogo, who is happy within his circle of Asian friends. "Personally, I feel there are some gaps I cannot overcome. But that doesn't mean I don't like the U.S.; I'm very glad I'm staying here," he says. For Clara Gona, a 30-year-old bachelor of nursing student from Zimbabwe, intense studies and raising her 6-year-old son have mitigated the fact she knows only one international friend in the Hopkins community. She has the added challenge of a commuter marriage with a husband pursuing his doctoral degree at Boston University. Gona lives with her son and brother-in-law, a student at Coppin State College who helps with child care. Gona and her husband meet whenever possible, but ironically have wound up traveling back to Zimbabwe on holidays without each other. "I was last home in 1992, but my husband was there for the summer of 1995. It's too expensive for us to go to Zimbabwe together. Hopefully I will go next year," Gona says. To overcome loneliness during the American holiday seasons, they travel to Ohio, Florida and Tennessee to be with close friends. International students who come from countries closer geographically and culturally have an easier go of things, according to Sharma. They are more likely to talk to friends or counselors about being lonely or depressed, can fly home cheaper and often have friends at home with access to e-mail and other cyber communication networks. Claudia Zraunig, a 21-year-old Austrian exchange student in the Department of Environmental Engineering, spends a lot of her free time at the Computing Center. She writes to her friends about Baltimore: the shock she's felt encountering homeless people, the excitement of attending an Orioles game, the tastes of Haussner's Restaurant and Lexington Market. She also thrives on hearing what's happening in the graduate program she'll rejoin at the University of Technology in Graz. "I talked one and a half hours today with my boyfriend on the Internet," Zraunig confesses. "We all spend a lot of time sending e-mail to Austria. It's a way to get rid of homesickness."
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