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Dear Nehmat: Advice to International Students

7 mins read

Dear international freshmen,

I know that you have been assaulted with information and advice in the last week or so, and your brains are not processing much anymore. So while you wrap your head around the new-ness of it all, let me do my bit and add to this mess of information and advice.

When I was applying to colleges as a senior in high school, I spent all my time thinking about how to get into a college of my choice, and very little time on what living at college would be like. Looking back, here are the things I wish I’d known when I was an international freshman last year.

Every time you meet a new person, they will want to know all about where you’re from and talk about the two or three issues that they associate with your country. You will become a spokesperson for your country. After a year here, I have a well-prepared and well-honed speech about the caste system and male privilege in India. And I’m thinking about adding a little rant against the declining Rupee.

If you’re like me and embody the social equivalent of a silent coat rack, then being an international student solves the problem of Making Small Talk. If you actually like meeting new people, then this is a great way to draw others into conversation. Either way, answering the same questions gets old quickly, and you may start to feel as if people are only interested in where you’re from and not you as an individual. Accept that some people may never progress beyond asking about your country rather than you, but others will take the time to be interested in you as a person and they will be the most wonderful friends ever.

Learn to cook the food of your people, even if you don’t plan to cook for yourself at Swat. You will eventually end up in a situation where someone (friend’s family or employer for the summer, or both in my case) asks you to cook for them and you find yourself saying, “Absolutely!” when you really should have said, “I don’t really know how to cook.” Avoid the harrowing process of frantically Skype-ing your mother and deciphering recipes on the Internet, while praying that it works out and learn the next time you’re home. Alternately, you could improvise and hope that the people you’re serving don’t know much about your cuisine.

This informal representation of your country can also turn into a troublesome experience if something newsworthy (good or bad) happens back home and suddenly everyone wants to ask you for your take on such events. Anushka Mehta ’15, from Cairo, has written about her experience answering questions about Egypt, even though she wasn’t present for the revolution. It can be challenging to navigate not actually being present for the events back home but still having to answer questions about them. Things like these can also lead to the sudden realization of just how far away you are from home.

This brings us to homesickness. In the words of i20 President, Stephanie Kestelman ’16, “It is okay to be homesick.” Homesickness doesn’t just have to be about missing your family or cuisine, though I dream about a perfect cup of “chai” when I’m stressed out. It can mean missing speaking in multiple languages at once, the sounds of chaotic city life, or music from back home. I listen to more Bollywood now than I ever did when I was in India.  Homesickness can also be struggling with your changing identity at college and craving the familiarity that defined ‘home’ for you. At times like these, find a friend and talk about it, Skype the fam, hug people. Drink chai. Don’t call it “chai tea”.

Speaking of changing identity, one of the most important changes in my life has been incorporating “race” into my identity. Growing up in an environment where everyone was varying shades of brown, and in a comfortably wealthy home, I never really stopped to think about how the color of my skin could impact my life, and had never had my privilege challenged. But the occasional discomfort of going through security checks at airports, encountering racial stereotyping in social situations and sometimes being the only colored person in a room has brought home the existence of race. Conversely, sometimes people I meet will assume I have experienced life as a minority, but the truth is that my race had little influence in my life growing up, and I have no right to speak as a member of a minority group.

Your big discovery may not be the same as mine, but prepare to have your ideas of the world challenged. It may be recognizing the differences between what “poverty” means in your country and what it means in America, it may be about discovering the role of gender in your life back home and here, or it may be something entirely different. But work through the changes, talk to different people about their experiences, and recognize that it can take time to settle into a new place.

This is my little addition to all the information you already have. It can be thrilling as well as disconcerting to be in an entirely new place and it is perfectly alright to feel a little lost. And if you’ve already survived all the paperwork involved in International Orientation, you’re good to go.

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