Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 25, 1995

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

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