International Student Series Week 3: Finding Home Away From Home
The international students who attend South Dakota’s colleges and universities have plenty of challenges. From language barriers to the weather--there’s a lot to navigate. But perhaps the biggest and most important challenge is finding a sense of home away from home.
Soni Popuri is used to hot weather. It’s not unusual for her hometown in India to reach 110 degrees. She arrived in Rapid City to study at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in January of 20-11. And that’s when she stepped into snow for the very first time.
And I absolutely loved it! I know it sounds crazy but people (who) come from hot weather love snow,” she says.
Popuri’s husband had been studying at Mines for two years by the time she joined him. She says their American friends helped them learn some of the ins and outs of the new culture. They also helped the Popuris find things to do.
“We’ve learned so many things! I’ve learned skiing from some American friends,” she says with a smile.
Building a connection with other students can make all the difference in adjusting to a new school and a new country. Meerab Joseph is a junior pre-med major from Sri Lanka. She’s involved with a handful of student groups at School of Mines, including a Christian fellowship group and a group for Women in Science and Engineering. She says it’s important to get to know people.
“And the only way to do that is getting involved in like different groups, and so people who have similar interests as you,” she says.
Campus involvement can also help students navigate the language barrier. Some schools offer English as a second language programs. Others, like Mines, have an orientation program where current international students offer newcomers tips.
Suzi Aadland is the director of the Ivanhoe International Center at Mines. She notes a particular challenge for international students learning American English:
“Slang and idioms!” she laughs. “That’s always fun, y’know? And the students say this. And they say, so what does ‘How’re you doing,’ mean? It means hi!”
It’s a point Meerab Joseph makes too: “You just sometimes gotta make sure you don’t start your life off right there. You just tell them, ‘Good, how are you?’”
As helpful as these campus programs can be, it’s essential to get off campus in order to really dive into a new culture. Most colleges have some sort of partner family program that connects students with community members. While not essential for a successful college experience, Suzi Aadland says students enjoy the chance to see American culture beyond a dorm room.
“The international students come here and if they’re not connected to a family they may never go into an American home,” says Aadland.
School of Mines has around 160 international students, and Aadland says more than 80% of them have been matched with a Rapid City area family.
But the rate isn’t nearly that high in smaller towns with larger numbers of international students. Greg Wymer is South Dakota State University’s director of international students and scholars. He says anywhere from 15 to 25 Brookings families regularly partner with one or two international students each year. With more than 800 international students at SDSU last fall -- 174 of them new enrollments -- plenty of students don’t have that dedicated bridge into the wider community.
But one couple has taken it upon themselves to offer a home away from home for SDSU’s international students. Terri Colgrove says it started when she and her husband realized they were in for a quiet Thanksgiving.
“You know, when your kids go off and get married you have to share them on holidays,” she explains.
That was five years ago, and their daughters were scattered around the country visiting their in-laws. Terri told her husband Bob they should just make some turkey sandwiches and work around the house.
“And he said, ‘No no no.’ He said, ‘Terri, we need to invite some people over and really celebrate Thanksgiving,’” she remembers. “And as soon as he said that I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
She called Greg Wymer’s office and said they wanted to invite eight international students to their home for an American Thanksgiving dinner. He posted the information on the International Student Facebook page, and within 20 minutes all eight spots were filled.
Colgrove says she sent those students an email explaining that dinner was at 4 p.m., but they were welcome to join when she started cooking around ten in the morning. Three students from China showed up right at ten, followed by students from India, Bangladesh, and Nepal.
“And we got along so well!” says Colgrove. “It was an instant bond between all of us and by the end of the night, after eating and playing and just having a great time, we knew that this was not going to stop.”
Since then, the Colgroves have hosted Christmas parties, Easter dinners, and birthday parties. They have a spare room in their house where some students live during transitional periods, and there’s a world map downstairs where students circle their hometown and sign their name. Five years after their first Thanksgiving together, Terri Colgrove says 50 international students filled their home last November.
“My husband is concerned. He’s like, ‘Terri, there’s so many kids! We need to rent a church or something!’ And over and over the students say, the best thing to them is coming to a home and feeling like they have a home to come to in Brookings. And so we know we can’t move it from here,” says Colgrove.
Over the years, the Colgroves have realized the students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the arrangement. Terri Colgrove says it’s been a lesson in looking beyond national and religious differences that can seem so insurmountable.
“You know we found out that people are people are people. College kids need a mom and dad no matter where they are, no matter where they’re from.”
She says it’s difficult to say goodbye to students once they graduate and move on from Brookings, but many stay in touch and have become extended family. Bob Colgrove’s birthday fell on Easter Sunday this year, and Terri says students visiting for dinner also brought gifts and cards.
“But when I read the cards over it moved me to tears especially the ones--the students who have children, and they brought cards for grandpa.”
Terri Colgrove even says she feels badly for people who haven’t had this experience. She says getting to know these students has been an incredible opportunity to learn more about the world.
“I could go on and on and on, there’s so many stories I could tell. The fun things we’ve done, the shocking things we’ve learned, the heartbreaking things. Just...my life is forever changed, and I am forever grateful.”
A lesson learned both by students from around the world and families from South Dakota: people are people. And sometimes all it takes is a little step into the unknown to find a sense of community--and maybe even family.