University News

Mingling cultures: Brown’s international student body

By
Sunday, May 29, 2011

Blair Cameron ’13 of New Zealand never imagined that fraternities were really like in the movies. But when he arrived in the United States for the first time, he was in for a surprise — “Oh, it’s actually like that,” he remembered thinking.

For Sumitha Raman ’13, CVS was a fascinating discovery. “It’s a pharmacy, but you get basically anything and everything that you could ever imagine,” she marveled.

Angela Wu ’11 found Americans’ personal space boundaries stricter than in her home country of Paraguay. “I always took it for granted — it’s so normal to hug someone when greeting them,” she said, “but I realized that people get very uncomfortable.”

Whether it is the party scene or Thayer Street’s many offerings, international students arriving at Brown face a distinctly different lifestyle that many label a “culture shock.”

But this shock has not stopped Brown’s ever-growing international student population. Though the University’s admission website boasts that about 10 percent of the student population hails from abroad, “the percentage is actually larger” when taking into account students who are schooled abroad but have American passports, and other such technicalities, said Panetha Ott, director of international admissions.

Compared to similar institutions, Brown is “slightly on the healthier side” in terms of percentage of international students, Ott added.

The Office of Admission does not strive to consciously increase that number, though the University will occasionally set a certain rate.

“There’s talent all over the world,” Ott said. “We’re just getting the best students.”

“Historically, universities have thrived when there have been people from all over the world coming to the table to share their ideas and share their cultures,” she added. “Very often what (students) remember the most is that the people next door to them or down the hall from them came from a very different background and that really changed their lives.”

Brown receives the most international applications from China, Canada, the United Kingdom, Singapore, India and Korea, in that order. Because the European Union allows citizens of member countries to study anywhere in the union for free or at very low cost, applications from European countries are relatively low, Ott said.

Foreign student admission is not need-blind.

 

‘Freedom to explore’

Students choose to come to Brown from abroad for a wide variety of reasons. Sofia Ruiz ’14, from Mexico, said going to school in her home country was not a good idea “for safety reasons.”

Ana Bermudez ’12, from Bogota, Colombia, was attracted to the idea of living on campus. At Brown, “there’s a lot of space to do extracurricular activities and community service projects,” she said. “At home, it’s much more the academic college experience.”

But most students offered the same answer that American students give when asked why they chose Brown — the open curriculum. “At the time I graduated from high school, I was not quite certain what I wanted to study,” said Marco Sanchez Junco ’11, who hails from Mexico and is one of the four coordinators of the International Mentoring Program, a peer support group attached to the Office of Campus Life. “I knew coming to the U.S. and even more so coming to Brown would give me the freedom to explore more areas.”

Katharina Windemuth ’15, who was born in Paris and has since moved around Europe, will come to the United States in September because she wants a “more exciting” education. “The American approach to education seems to be more liberal and open than that of any country I’ve lived in so far,” she wrote in an email to The Herald.

Before coming to campus, international students are assigned a mentor through the student-run International Mentoring Program. Students can communicate with their mentors over the summer and meet with them throughout the year. The program was “important in terms of getting me used to Brown,” Raman said. “The mentors and everyone really stay with you for the rest of the year and even after that, because you end up forming relationships with people that don’t really go away.”

 

New challenges

When international students arrive on campus for the first time, they go through an orientation process during which they meet other international students and are provided with “critical information about academic expectations, campus life and student immigration and visa policies,” according to the Office of Student Life’s website.

In recent years, orientation has lasted for three days, but this year it will be a day longer. The International Mentoring Program will pair up with the Writing Center and Excellence at Brown — an optional orientation process that introduces students to academics at Brown — to orient international students to writing and “provide support to people who feel they need a helping hand with regards to their English,” Junco said.

As the trend in students’ countries of origin shifts, the international community is in increasing need of English as a second language support, Junco said.

Even for students who do come to Brown with English proficiency, the academic environment provides new challenges. “There’s a particular American style that professors look for here,” said Bermudez, who found the Writing Center helpful in her first semester.

The University also offers an Office of International Student and Scholar Services, which helps students integrate themselves into the community by offering help with issues such as visas and work permission.

There are also a number of student organizations dedicated to providing support for international students. The Brown International Organization is made up of about 20 to 30 members — in addition to a fixed board of 12 students — and is open both to internationals and to Americans.

“It’s essentially a platform to throw activities, lectures, events which have an international aspect to them,” said Artemis Stamatiadis ’11, co-president of BRIO. “The idea is that international students can come and bring traditions and holidays from back home and all those traditions will be known to other (cultures).”

Buxton International House is a program house also open to both international and American students. “Often I see students from the same country sticking to others from the same country and I think I would be opposed to that,” Buxton resident Stamatiadis said. But, she added, “Buxton is a great place because you have the opportunity to go into a house that students are chosen to go in.”

Lloyd Rajoo ’13, who is from Singapore, agreed that it can be tempting to associate with people from similar backgrounds. But, he said, “I think the best thing for me was living with a local (from Rhode Island). It was a lot of fun and really important.”

For some, the idea of adapting to the American lifestyle can seem intimidating. “I guess feeling a little helpless at first is part of the freshman experience, but I’d like to avoid being the awkward European kid next year,” Windemuth wrote. “It sounds silly, but the prospect of Americanizing my habits seems a little daunting right now.”

Ruiz said she felt welcomed by the community when she arrived. “I think people really are fascinated when you’re international so it actually makes it really easy,” she explained.

“American students are very receptive to hearing about other people’s experiences and perspectives on issues that we talk about inside and outside the classroom,” said Minoo Ramanathan ’11, who was born in India and attended school in Oman. “I realized it was actually a big advantage to have that perspective as long as you were open minded … (having grown up abroad) was a great way to start a conversation with people.”

 

Finding support

Internationals’ need for extra advising when t
hey first arrive varies. Wu did not feel the need to seek advising when she arrived at Brown her freshman year.

“I didn’t think the culture shock or anything we had to go through was that bad,” she said.

Internationals agreed that advising is there if students want it — but “it’s not forcing anyone to do anything,” Wu said.

But some said they wished international advising would take a more proactive stance. “When I came here, I wished there had been (events) I could go to that explained Social Security numbers and things like that straight away,” Cameron said. “I had to go get the help … it’s pretty obvious that most international kids who go to Brown are going to need those things, so having things like that straight away would be great.”

International students can also be “more hesitant” to reach out for help, a feature that is “very characteristic about the way resources are set up at Brown,” Junco said. “Faculty needs to step in” and offer help more actively, he added.

One of the main concerns for international students currently is offering more financial help to students from abroad, according to Wu. As a member of the Brown International Scholarship Committee, Wu has been working with the committee and the Brown Annual Fund for two years to create a tradition where graduating international students will create a scholarship for an incoming student from abroad.

Other students expressed concern about life after Brown. “I think that is something that a lot of colleges, including Brown, don’t really think about,” Raman said. “But it’s really hard to consider the fact that when international students are coming to Brown, most often they’re not going to just be able to go back to their home countries … because forms of education vary so much.”

Raman, a pre-medical student, said it is her “dream” to go to medical school in the United States, especially at Brown. But since acceptance to medical schools for international students is based on “complete ability to pay,” she said, it would be impossible for her to achieve that dream. “I really wish that, as in all the other ways that Brown redefines norms, that it would also redefine this norm.”

Ultimately, though students have found a strong support system in the international community, “it’s very hard to make a clear distinction between students who are American and those who are not,” Junco said. “There’s just such a variety.”

“In so many ways Brown is about bringing Brown to the world,” Raman added. “But it’s also about bringing the world to Brown.”