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International Students Finding Home Away From Home

What it’s like to adapt to a new country, and new culture, as an international student.

Originally published: September 21, 2022

International students at an ISA gathering.
Photo courtesy of Vu Bui. (Permission granted): A few international students at an ISA gathering.

The wheels of luggage screech across the airport floor, the life of an international student packed into two suitcases. It’s a heavy weight on their shoulders. Pushing aside the fear of saying goodbye to what they’ve always known, they look straight ahead and cross the gates. 

Ahead lies a day-long plane ride away to a new beginning in the United States. It’s hours of traveling and running on jet-lagged time. From this day forward, they take the road on a journey to independence

Stepping into the unknown

“Being in the admissions office, you hear someone calling and saying, ‘My child needs to register for this, this and this – how can I do that for them?’” Drake senior Tinovimbanashe Chigwada said. “When I’m thinking of what’s the last thing my parents did – they put me on a plane and they say, bye, and I had to come here and figure out, ‘What’s a social security card?”

Chigwada is an actuarial science major from Zimbabwe, and she’s been living in Des Moines for over three years now. Homesickness isn’t something she grappled with much in the beginning, though. Chigwada credits her home life in which kids were taught how to fend for themselves.

In secondary school in Zimbabwe, students have to do comprehensive exams and mandatory sports – squash being one that Chigwada played. Coupled with the “lectures” where she discussed her viewpoints with her parents, Chigwada was able to build a good foundation in discipline.

“That’s also where the community here and people I’ve found to be kind of a family for me,” Chigwada said. “Strangers who I would’ve never thought to cross paths with from all the way where I was, and now they matter so much to me.”

Of course, there’s the aspect of missing one’s family and friends. Chigwada is no stranger to it, sadness stemming from watching her brothers grow up without her in person. It’s a gaping hole that lies present in almost every student miles away from home.

The loss of culture

For sophomore Phuong Nguyen, an actuarial science major from Vietnam, emptiness lies in the absence of festivities with her people.

Lunar New Year is a big part of growing up, and here people don’t do it or celebrate it or anything – it’s kind of a really huge puzzle that’s missing for me,” Nguyen said. “Living with your family is so much better since you’re just near your parents and friends.”

Nguyen first experienced living in Washington as a 15-year-old through an exchange program and feels being here now isn’t as drastic of a change as last time. 

“When I first came here when I was 15 years old, it was so bad,” Nguyen said. “People talking in a different language and then living in a household that has different cultures.” 

Adapting to something foreign takes a toll, and Drake hasn’t always been the best companion either. Incidents of racism on campus have been a disappointment to Nguyen. It made her afraid to interact with others who weren’t from Asian countries.

The heavy workload in college serves as a distraction. She is currently the vice president of the International Student Association (ISA) and dedicates her time to providing a healthy community for those involved – including herself. 

“My English skills really improved,” Nguyen said. “I have met lots of cool people [through ISA], some of them are role models that make me want to become better. Also, I have a chance to develop my leadership as well as management skills.” 

Finding camaraderie

Companionship is a running theme vital to survival on your own in a foreign country. For sophomore Chiara Belfico, a track and field athlete from Italy, her close friendship with teammate Anastasia Kirillov is one of the things that has pulled her through the hardships. Kirillov is also an international student, originally from Argentina.

“I really tell her everything, positive and negative stuff. Even what is happening back home to my family, if we have something going on that is not amazing,” Belfico said. “I can count on her.”

It’s refreshing in a sea of people who Belfico finds to have a more individualized concept. Last fall, when Belfico had to go through a surgery for compartment syndrome, she ran into health insurance issues – all of which she had to deal with alone.

She had to get used to the lack of greeting. Belfico comes from a country where greetings come in air kisses on the cheek, so she was baffled when people wouldn’t even spare a hello. She reminds herself now, that it’s not something to take personally – it’s just how they are.

“I feel more like an adult,” Belfico said. “After the first month, I started to realize that I was here and that I was living a different life and like, it was actually real. I just started to see things as they are rather than idealize them.”

Embracing discomfort

Because when you’re miles away, you lose the security in your homeland. That’s what struck track and field athlete Anthony Barmes when he first came here. As a thrower, he’s blessed with great teammates and a coach who’s like family to him. Sometimes though, it’s still a little lonely.

Barmes is a junior marketing major from New Zealand. Flying across the oceans to study in the United States is anything but comfortable – but he doesn’t quite see it as a bad thing.

“I think being scared is a really good thing. I think being uncomfortable progresses you as a person,” Barmes said. “I went back to New Zealand for the summer and I’ve just changed so much.”

Barmes had to leave behind a country rich in such culture; a country full of beautiful people and art. He describes the people to generally be more of a team in a way that America isn’t. That came as a culture shock to Barmes. Getting out of his hometown has pushed him forward, however. Being an international student, and alone in a new country has an upside.

“It’s also just the familiarity of being back at home – but that’s safe,” Barmes said. “Things that don’t make me feel good – I look at them in a positive manner. Feeling secure? I want to feel uncomfortable.”

Doing it all over again

Having to adapt once to a new environment already bears a huge burden—imagine doing it twice. For business major and soccer player Nico Cortes, from Chile, that is reality.

Cortes is a junior transfer student who arrived at Drake in August this year. He was originally a student and soccer player at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. New to the Bulldog family, he decided to make the change for a chance to play D1 soccer. 

“I’m more homesick here, at Drake, than when I arrived at Fort Hays,” Cortes said. “Everything’s new. I did it once but changing twice – it was difficult because I was already adapted there.”

The Drake campus is bigger than what Cortes had imagined. Where Drake is located in a bigger city, Fort Hays State is located in a small town – one where there wasn’t as much to do.

In the couple of months Cortes has spent here, he’s been able to forge close ties with another Chilean student on campus. It’s a friendship that brings a piece of home to Des Moines. As a Spanish speaker, he was able to form close bonds with a group of Spanish-speaking students at the international student orientation. Sharing a language foreign to the United States has allowed them to match instantly.

“I would like to have more international stuff,” Cortes said. “Events more regularly – different things. It doesn’t have to be a dinner, party or something like that. Because for sure, there are people that went to the orientation, but they didn’t make friends.”

On Sept. 8, ISA hosted a welcome party for the community at the La Casa Cultural House. International students, both new and old, graced its steps – a representation of the different faces that have flown in from all around the world. A little global village built in Des Moines. 

As the semester goes on, Nguyen states that ISA aims to be a bridge between international and domestic students. A place for everybody to explore cultures foreign to them.

“I think it has a great opportunity to make you realize that perhaps you were just wrong this whole time, or perhaps you were right,” Chigwada said. “Gives people an opportunity to celebrate things about other cultures that they otherwise would not have been able to.”

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