Loading icon

The Cross Cultural Experience

Arts & Culture | April 2, 2018

The international student presence can be felt on all fronts of the Tufts campus, from parties at the International House to the events put on by the culture clubs and the many different languages that students speak. In fact, 15 percent of the Tufts student body is composed of international students from 60 different countries. This number has more than doubled since 2000, when seven percent of students were international. Tufts admissions states that globalism “is a way of life.” But for many international students at Tufts, their initial transition to the US was less than smooth.

Between the years 2006 and 2016, the number of international students in America increased from 583,000 to over one million. Because of this spike, the concept of culture shock, defined as the difficulty of adapting to a new environment, is an increasingly immediate issue. Gabrielle Bonpun, a sophomore from London, England, was surprised by the challenges she faced with adjusting to American culture. She said, “Because my mom is American and I’ve come to the US for the summer most of my life, I thought ‘Oh, I’ll be fine, I totally know the US.’ But then I came and I was like ‘Oh my god, what is this place?’” Small things, like eating habits and slang, surprised her. At home, Bonpun was used to meals being a social event during which everyone would eat together and leave at the same time, “whereas here I feel like people just eat their food and leave,” she explained.

For Charming Dube, a student from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, culture shock was a varied experience. He noted that things such as the way Americans use “How are you?” as a greeting rather than a question, as well as a cultural emphasis on punctuality, were differences he dealt with on a daily basis. “It’s a lot of tiny things that individually don’t make much of a difference,” he said, “but when they aggregate, it can really define your experience.” Vladimir Proaño, who is from Quito, Ecuador, similarly found that American social interactions were different from those in Ecuador. He explained, “Back home, people use a lot of sarcasm and laugh about it, and that’s how my relationships with friends are built. There’s been times here when people didn’t understand my sarcasm or took it too seriously.” Jorge Eguiguren, who is also from Quito, was struck by the lack of physical contact between Tufts students, because in Ecuador “with everyone you know, you hug and kiss them when you greet them,” he said.

Jane Etish-Andrews, the Director of the International Center at Tufts, echoed these sentiments. She said that many of the things international students struggle with are small differences, like food, weather, or slang, and that the combination of these aspects can wear on students heavily. But over time, she said, most students adjust. “Changes get deeply engrained. Your life shifts, your attitudes shift, your interests shift in ways you couldn’t have ever predicted,” she stated.

Bonpun also dealt with adjusting to the American academic system. She attended a French school in London, where she took exams in twelve different subjects and gained knowledge in many different areas, rather than in specific topics. This created difficulties for her when it came to fast-paced introduction classes at Tufts, like Introduction to Chemistry, where many students had base knowledge from high school classes like AP Chemistry. “Everyone had done it before, and I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “I felt like I was working six times as hard as everyone else and only getting half as far.” Dube also struggled to acclimate to academics in the US. He took writing intensive classes during his first year at Tufts and had to learn an American style of writing. He reflected, “It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t that I had bad writing, but I was just writing in a different style, and that was something to recalibrate myself around.” Bonpun similarly pointed out that some Tufts students have an American-centric way of thinking, meaning that they think that the US is the standard for other countries. “It bothers me when you’re trying to explain the way something is done in Europe, and it’s not a worse thing, it’s just different,” she said.

Dube has also dealt with different cultural understandings in the classroom. When he read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, a novel about a voyage up the Congo River in Africa, for a Tufts class, he found that he reacted differently to it than many of his peers because of his background. He said, “It was written in the early 1900s and at the time it was considered super progressive and anti-colonialism. But I didn’t appreciate the book, I thought it lacked a lot of agency and was looking at people as a subspecies. However, I was with an environment with people who appreciated that book.” Etish-Andrews commented that this is something many international students deal with. “Most of the [international] students do more of the work to get to the point where American faculty and students will see their point of view. You’ve got to be able to approach [American students] and explain your vantage point. They have to understand the value. [International students] learn from other approaches that will be valuable to them and American students will also learn from the international ones.”

International students must also contend with the shifting immigration and visa laws that have been implemented under the Trump administration. As a result of these increasingly strict laws and the growing allure of universities in other English-speaking countries, international student enrollment rates in the US have dropped since 2016. Richard Ding, a student from Hong Kong, China, commented that he is concerned that the Trump administration may affect his employability in the US as an international student. Trump has moved to make the H1-B visa, the visa that allows foreigners to work in the US, more difficult to obtain. Ding has faced difficulties in obtaining internships because he needs visa sponsorship in order to work in the US. He said, “If I were to do it over again, I would be very hesitant to [come to college in the US.] All the promises of an American education that I was searching for have come true. But it’s also about how employable I am.”

Conversely, Dube has not been directly affected by any of the laws, but he still sees the Trump administration as worrisome. He stated that if he a were a high school senior now, he might not choose to come to college in the US. He explained, “It has less to do with Trump being in office and more with how Trump got into office. It’s the subtleties that you don’t expect, that appear to exist in every aspect of American society. When you’re coming from the outside, you think racism is centralized geographically and the reality is that it’s not.” Etish-Andrews said that she has seen an increase in the fear of international students regarding their freedom to leave and reenter the US. She commented, “That’s hard on people, psychologically, emotionally. It’s very stressful. We [the International Center] used to be less worried about students traveling but now we tell people to err on the conservative side. If you don’t really have to go, don’t.” However, Etish-Andrews maintains the importance of international students in the US. “I hope that we as educational institutions will lobby more so that we don’t undermine everything that we’ve been able to offer to the world. It’s one product we really do well here,” she said.