Three International Students Pursue Big Dreams in America While Keeping Home Close
Last fall, Southeast Missouri State University saw a 44.5 percent increase in international students from the prior year. More than 700 students from 50 countries came to campus, sometimes seeing it, and the United States, for the first time.
An increase in international student enrollment was a University priority with increased recruitment efforts; however, the results far exceeded anyone’s expectations. It’s fair to say students from all over the world came to Southeast, but Dr. Zahir Ahmed, director of international programs at Southeast, says the greatest representation is from India and China.
As for the factors that would lead students and parents to select Southeast from half a world away, Ahmed says they are looking for the same thing as U.S. students: a quality, affordable education. Southeast offers a variety of accredited programs at a relatively inexpensive price. For parents who aren’t just sending their children off to college, but in most cases to another continent, Southeast’s record of campus safety is another factor. Southeast was ranked as the safest public four-year university in Missouri by StateUniversity.com earlier this year.
For Priya Tauro, Guanliang Dong and Nelson Mwangi, Southeast is a step toward major goals. After traveling thousands of miles to get here, they are taking advantage of every learning opportunity.
“I felt pretty accustomed to everything before I came to Southeast since I had completed my undergraduate degree in New York,” she says, “and I’ve been speaking English my whole life, but the accent was a big adjustment in the beginning.”
She hasn’t let the accent, or anything else for that matter, slow her down. Since coming to America to pursue her love of music, she started a band with American students playing Indian music, received the Best and Brightest Award while getting her undergraduate degree in music, finished a capstone leadership program, volunteered for more than 750 hours of community service, and finished an internship with MTV. She did so well at her internship that she was asked to join them full-time, which she did prior to being accepted to Southeast.
And, how did a student from India make it all the way to New York and end up in the Heartland?
“Zahir Ahmed worked for the university where I received my undergraduate degree. In my first year, he left to come to Southeast, but we stayed in touch. When I was looking for a place to get a master’s degree, he said, I have just the place.”
So, she came to Southeast, where she has been just as involved. In addition to her studies, she serves as the graduate assistant in the Office of Residence Life, is busy planning an event to celebrate diversity at Southeast, sings at the Catholic Campus Ministries and still manages to talk to her parents every day.
“In India, we don’t have the option of studying music or photography or social work,” she says. “You study math or the sciences. Learning the fine arts is viewed as a hobby.”
For Priya, music was much more than a hobby. She started playing the guitar in the second grade, then learned to play piano and then started singing. She began teaching music lessons at 14 and released her debut album a year ago.
“I’m getting an M.B.A., so I can return home and start a music school where students will have the option of pursuing an actual music education.”
Her studies took her to England and France over spring break for one of her classes, and in another, she and her team are running a “company” that will be reviewed at the end of the semester to gauge the performance by their stocks and assets.
“Graduate studies are much more challenging,” she says, “and I understand that. You have to be prepared.”
She likes that her classes meet only once weekly, giving her time for that preparation. She also appreciates the freedom in scheduling classes.
“In India, you don’t pick your classes and which time you’ll take them or with which professor.”
Noise is another difference between India and Cape.
“It’s so quiet. I come from a city of 10 million people, and there’s honking all the time in the streets. It’s not meant to be rude, but drivers are honking the whole trip. Here you only do that if there’s about to be an accident.”
“Rush Hour is my favorite. I also like the Fast and the Furious.”
If you see a pattern, you may have already discovered Gerry’s other passion–cars.
“I’m a big fan of autos–any brand,” he says. “I see my life in three different vehicles. First, after I graduate and get a job, I’ll drive a Toyota. Once I become a manager, I’ll drive a Volkswagen. When I become a CEO, I’ll get an Audi.”
Apart from movies and vehicles, Gerry also loves language. He began learning English in the seventh grade, and he enjoys practicing it.
“When I have trouble, I focus on the words and find what I understand. When I meet someone, I talk with them and then write a short summary. I think about the person and what I can learn.”
He has learned to say hello in 16 different languages of students he’s met at Southeast.
“I think it shows respect. It’s important for the friendship and to help each other,” he says. “I have met some friends from Saudi Arabia, and they have taught me some of their language and I’ve taught them some Chinese.”
Those friendships and a busy schedule have helped him to get over his initial homesickness. Now, he says, he has no time. He volunteers at the International Center on campus to help other students and meet new friends. He goes to class, studies, eats and Skypes with his parents daily.
“I don’t want to let them down,” he says.
The drive to please his parents coupled with his fear of college psychology and his love of barbecuing with friends make him just like any other college freshman.
“I have learned patience,” he says. “There is no patience in China. I have more patience to study now, and that will change my life.”
The food was the first big impression made on Nelson Mwangi since starting at Southeast last fall and leaving behind his native Kenya. He says the plates of pizza most students were eating did little for him nutritionally.
“The food is no good in the U.S. at all,” he says. “It is all more quantity than quality. We eat lots of vegetables. I usually eat pasta and vegetables. I’m going to get some vegetables for dessert,” he says referencing his plate of pasta and making his American roommate cringe at the thought.
Nelson says his family doesn’t have to buy vegetables at home, but rather they raise it themselves on their 6 1/2 acre farm. He says they also grow coffee, which they sell.
“I never realized how important coffee was until I came to the U.S.”
Language was not a barrier for Nelson. He speaks his national language of Swahili, his formal language of English, his tribal language, and he even learned Chinese in school before coming to America.
While language did not prove a problem, he has found big differences in education.
“Our high school was a boarding school. Kind of like prison but not that bad,” he laughs. “We had class from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then we had study hours until 10:30 p.m., supervised by a teacher.”
Graduating required passing an exam covering all four years of school. Failure meant waiting a year to take it again.
“I burned the midnight oil for that exam,” he says. “At home, it was much about education but less about knowledge. We had class; we were done. Here, we have class, and then we go to a lab and practice what we learned in class. There, if you ask questions, it’s like you are questioning the teacher, but here, you are being productive and earning class points.”
Once he’s earned a degree in business, Nelson says it’s time for the next step in his plan.
“I’m going to take over the business world, make a lot of money and go back to my country to pay for school for kids who cannot afford it. Knowledge can’t be taken away from them, and they can use it for more opportunities.”
With a plan in place, he now only needs the degree. He says his studies have proven interesting, particularly child psychology.
“I finally understood, yes, that’s why my younger brothers behave like this.”
He says he is adjusting to the new culture fine, but has found having all types of weather—rain, snow and warm temperatures in one week a little unusual. Meeting and getting to know other students has been enjoyable.
“They are very nice. They invited me to go home with them during the Thanksgiving break, and they were serious,” he says.
And how was the food?
“The best meal I’ve had in the U.S.”