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ISSUE 118 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/5/2004

International lives

By Insa Feye
Contributing Writer

Friday, November 5, 2004

Some of them feel homesick, lonely or confused. Others are somewhat comfortable, perhaps just happy to be in a new environment. But all of them have something in common  they are all fish out of water.

They are excited about the next couple of months. No, these are not first years. They are students from all over the world who have come thousands of miles to experience life at St. Olaf.

On Sept. 1, about 20 new international students arrived at St. Olaf to start a new chapter of their lives far away from family and friends. They came from many countries, including Costa Rica, Norway, and the Marshall Islands.

An exchange program is a unique opportunity to get out of the familiar comfort zone at home.

Khatia Alpaidze, a student from Russia, says that it is a great challenge to start making decisions for myself and to take responsibility for personal growth and development.

An exchange student has to fulfill a lot of expectations. Especially at the beginning, he or she has to get used to a lot of new conditions affecting their everyday lives. The strong and extremely friendly community life on campus helps the international family of students to feel integrated into the college life.

The atmosphere at the college is very cozy and comfortable, providing the best background for successful learning and enjoying student life, Alpaidze said.

To many international students, life on the Hill is more contained than what they are used to.

Everything you do is on campus, said Conny Brenes-Mendieta from Costa Rica. In Costa Rica while you are going to university, you live with your family and also have a full-time job  school is not everything.

Brenes-Mendieta is a Spanish assistant in the Spanish House. As part of her scholarship, she works in the Spanish Department, leads the weekly conversation table, hosts Spanish conversation groups and helps organizes co-curricular gatherings to share her culture with the campus.

Many international students have similar schedules, frequently helping the language departments.

Being involved in those activities helps the international students to learn more about the American way of life. One of my main goals is to get to know more about the U.S. culture and its people, Brenes-Mendieta said. Many of the others feel the same way.

They are very open-minded, said Luyen Phan, international student adviser at St. Olaf. When the international students arrived, Phan explained that Americans in general are very friendly, but not always genuine. But at St. Olaf, students are more genuine; they want to get to know each other. Students make long-term friendships even if its something they didnt think about, said Phan. The faculty and staff are also friendly and truly welcoming.

I love my professors; they are very helpful and generous and make me take more responsibility for studying harder every day, Alpaidze said.

Other students note the interactions between teachers and their pupils. I was amazed how good the relationships between students and teachers are, said Marie-Mathilde Laplanche of her experience in the last two months.

In addition to living in the French House and helping the French department, she runs the French Choir on campus. Even if France and the United States are occidental countries, there are lots of cultural differences, she said.

Adjusting to the American way of life is always a significant part of the exchange students everyday life. One of the hardest things for Laplanche is eating dinner so early. In France, she would eat much later at night. But these differences help her to improve relationships and get familiar with typical American life.

One of the main challenges is the particular educational system at St. Olaf. Learning and studying happens on an intensive but very effective level.

St. Olaf is a very organized college that can fulfill every students expectations and has the freedom of choices, said Brenes-Mendieta. In general, the liberal arts college is not familiar to students from other countries where the large university system dominates. Phan expresed one advantage of the liberal arts system.

We have a lot of classes outside the major in order to be better human beings, Phan said. The international family has the chance to become familiar with the liberal arts while at St. Olaf.

The liberal arts education is a more effective way of promoting confidence in speaking, reading and writing in English. The small size of the college helps the students get to know each other and successfully overcome the language barrier.

At the end of the academic year, a lot of students wish to finish their university studies at St. Olaf instead of going back home. Phan says there are many former exchange students whom he knows are definitely still thinking about the lovely small college on the Hill. For many, it is a very special place of true serendipity.

At the end of every year the international students go home with a laughing and a crying eye  most of them probably with two crying eyes. In their bags they carry a lot of new and unique experiences as well as a list of valuable addresses for long-term friendships all over the world.

Contributing writer Insa Feye is an exchange student who attends the University of Paderborn, in Paderborn, Germany.

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