Mianmian Fei, a first-year from Guangzhou, China, knows she has a name that Americans struggle with. She learned that as soon as she got to campus.
“When I was picking up my textbooks in Barnes and Noble, the person was asking about my name and I told her, but she found it very hard [to understand],” she said. “The way it’s spelled, it’s not common for four characters to appear twice like that in an English name. That was my first day at Vanderbilt. “
But Mianmian doesn’t think her name is a problem — she sees it as a metaphor.
“My name means a kind of flower in my hometown. I [recently] found that the flower didn’t originate in China, but it’s also from another country and migrated to my hometown,” Mianmian said. “Now, it’s integrated very nicely into the city. I should be like the flower. Although not from the community, I can still prosper.”
The importance of storytelling
Kelly Perry, a sophomore from Chiang Mai, Thailand, recognizes the importance of international students being able to share their experiences. That was the motivation behind her “Stories” event through Lanterns, her initiative as the Multicultural Leadership Council’s international students relations chair. Everyone who spoke with the Hustler for this piece, besides Daniel Valent and Antonia Scherer, participated in the Lanterns event. Perry, as half-Thai, half-American, wanted to bridge the gap between international students and the rest of campus.
“The act of storytelling can be an act of liberation,” she said. “Not just for the person telling the story, but also for the listener, because it’s a raw, real moment where you’re trying to connect to someone.”
The event, which had about 200 attendees, involved each international student being free to share whatever they wanted about their experiences for around 10 minutes. Perry felt that the openness allowedfor a unique mix of viewpoints.
“They all tackled it from totally different perspectives, so it was an eclectic mix of the perspectives of an international student, but it in no way tokenizes their culture or their background. It’s just a person’s story,” Perry said. She also was sure to point out that while she organized the event, she did not speak.
Ilie Ashraff, a sophomore from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, enjoyed that the event actually allowed people to engage with the diversity on campus.
“How I explain it is you have a bowl, and you have eggs, baking powder, sugar, flour, and other baking stuff,” Ashraff said. “But if you don’t make an effort to stir it, you’re not gonna have a cake. You can have different people in one place, but if people don’t … get to know each other’s cultures, it isn’t going to mean anything.”
How they got to Vanderbilt (and America)
Every international student took a different path to end up at Vanderbilt. Rebeca Trabanino, a sophomore from San Salvador, El Salvador, believes her path began before she was even born.
“I know my life has been a consequence of the experiences my family had,” said Trabanino. “We came from a very humble background. … My mom had to work in the day and go to school at night to get her degree. It took her 10 years, but she did. I can’t forget the people that live in poverty that I know and care for. I’m making the most of the opportunities that my family fought for me to have.”
Exposure to Vanderbilt before coming here differed for all of the international students. Some, like Ashraff, had never heard of the school.
“When I got an offer, I didn’t know what Vanderbilt was, but when I looked it up, yeah, I wanted to come here,” she said.
Current Malaysian students had a unique process for admission to Vanderbilt — their arrival here was the result of a scholarship from the Malaysian government. While this changed recently, government intervention in the process meant that Malaysian students did not necessarily make their college decision themselves.
“I didn’t choose Vanderbilt,” said Asyraf Kamal, a junior from Selangor, Malaysia. “We … choose a scholarship to go to the United Kingdom or the United States. And then the government assigns us to the university.”
Other students had a strong interest in Vanderbilt prior to choosing the school.
“I went on a recruiting trip and visited UNC, Wake Forest and Vandy,” said Daniel Valent, a junior from Zurich, Switzerland who is on the tennis team. “I picked Vandy because I loved the tennis team. It’s like a family.”
Antonia Scherer, a junior from Munich, Germany, was recruited by the Vanderbilt golf team when playing for the German national team at a tournament in England. She relished the opportunity to take advantage of collegiate athletics, which schools in Europe don’t have.
“I feel like in Europe you can’t really combine academics and sports, so [coming to America] was a good option to play sports,” Antonia said.
Each international student has a different amount of exposure to America as well. Some, like Trabanino, had been to America multiple times. Others had never seen the country and were excited at their first sight of the United States.
Adjusting to Vanderbilt/Nashville
While it can be a dream to come to America, it can be hard for an international student to adjust quickly. One of the biggest barriers for international students islanguage. While nearly every international student learns English before college, the usefulness of formal language training varies.
“At first I was very timid, because I never spoke English on a daily basis in China,” Fei said. “I feel like I pronounce things right but they don’t get it. So I was [initially] quite frustrated.”
Ashraff added that the same initial fear can lead to early introversion.
“It just isn’t your first language. It’s awkward, you’re gonna be a bit scared to speak,” she said.
Others had more experience with the language. Trabanino went to a private school in El Salvador where all of her courses were in English. Emir Rodzi’s grandmother was an English teacher. Rodzi, though, believes that language shouldn’t interfere with forming relationships.
“If you put effort into knowing a person, language should not be a barrier,” he said. “I find that people here don’t judge based on bad English.”
Even the expected changes, though, can bring about homesickness. Ashraff, for example, found it hard to contact her family because of the time zone change. Dealing with that homesickness can come from simply acknowledging differences and beginning to address them, both internally and to others. Perry remembers a bout of homesickness from freshman year.
“It was a Skype conversation with my parents,” she said. “I told them I’m not happy here, even though I have everything here, and everything seems great. Something felt missing. They just told me to talk about where I’m from and be proud of it, stop being so quiet.”
Collegiate culture differences
International students often come into Vanderbilt without much of an understanding of American collegiate culture. Fei told a story of an international friend’s first experience of being “sexiled.”
“One time, the roommate brought someone back, and it was uncomfortable, she said. “They didn’t want to wake [my friend] up, but [my friend] woke up … and stayed in the lobby for two hours.”
Fei said this rarely happens in Chinese universities due to the size of the schools and dorm rooms. “In Chinese universities, the dorm [room] is very big. It’s 4-6 people,” she said. “People wouldn’t take someone back to the room like that.”
This doesn’t apply to all international students. On the flip side, Rodzi said that Vanderbilt is larger than most Malaysian colleges.
“It was so huge compared to any university back in my country. What makes it more shocking is that Vanderbilt is quite small when I see other [American] universities,” he said.
Greek life is one of the least-understood aspects of American college culture. Fei, for example, had no knowledge of Greek life before coming to Vanderbilt.
“I want to know what it is here. My understanding comes from American movies, where it’s party, party, party,” Fei said. Other international students also expressed that they lacked the knowledge to join Greek life.
“Maybe we could add a segment to international orientation where you [learn] about it,” Dimobi said. “It felt like almost all the people who wanted to rush already knew everything about rushing.”
Not every international student was deterred from joining Greek life. Antonia Scherer decided to join a sorority after encouragement from her first-year hallmates.
“I wanted to meet people outside of athletics,” said Antonia, a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. While she didn’t know anything about Greek life before joining her sorority, her friends from both her hall and the golf team convinced her to join.
“It was a really spontaneous decision. My family still doesn’t understand what Greek life is,” she said.
Beyond Greek life, some students don’t understand the typical beats of American college life.
“My first few weekends, I didn’t know what Friday nights were like,” Fei said. “So I just studied.” Rodzi added that partying and going out on weekends isn’t common in Malaysian culture, either. In some countries, college doesn’t even have a social aspect at all.
“It’s very different from a university education in El Salvador. There’s no idea of clubs and residence halls and things like that,” Trabanino said. “You just go to school and that’s it.”
Adjusting to American college, though, is not a process with a finite end.
“I don’t think I understand Vanderbilt now. It’s a process,” Fei said. “I understand it bit by bit.”
Being stereotyped AND misunderstood
Being from another country also means coming into an environment where peers have preconceived notions about your culture. Trabanino is quick to dispel one idea — that all international students don’t intend to return to their home countries.
“Not everybody who leaves a country is running away, or is here to ‘steal from Americans’ or ‘invade,’ because some people feel like foreigners … should just go back to their country,” Trabanino said. “People aren’t necessarily trying to dissociate from their origins.”
Malaysian students seem to experience this stereotyping in a different way than others. Asyraf Kamal is disappointed at times that many students have certain notions of Malaysian students.
“People don’t want to approach a Malaysian because of the stereotyping that’s been going on,” he said. “I really want people to stop and get to know me personally rather than just looking at the stereotype and [judging] me beforehand. It’s really sad.”
Students said that misunderstanding can be borne out of religion. Most Malaysian students are Muslims, and some believe that stereotypes about the Islamic faith can be pervasive on campus.
“I truly believe that how the media portrays us is very different from what we are as one. They easily paint us with a single brush,” Rodzi said. “It’s sad to know [people] only get to know Islam [through terrorism].” Rodzi also thinks that stereotyping can unfairly target Muslim women.
“I never have a problem, but my female friends who are in hijabs, they have a problem. When I walk with them, it’s different. I try to ask what happens to them, and they sometimes [feel stereotyped],” he said.
Ashraff recalled a moment that highlighted a misunderstanding of Malaysian and Muslim culture.
“Once after a lecture ended, I was using a phone, and someone asked if women in my country use phones. I found it really weird, but apparently that’s how some people view us,” she said. “That person even told me, ‘I didn’t think you guys ever do anything. I thought you just stay in and do nothing.’”
Being grouped together can often be upsetting for Malaysian students.
“I read a Yik Yak saying, ‘I really admire Malaysians because they’re tight-knit and so close to each other.’ It initially made me happy that people think we’re so close, but then it made me kind of sad, because they may think we’re in our own bubble; in our own world,” Ashraff said. “Maybe they think we don’t like to be friends with other people.”
That pattern of “grouping” can be hard on all international students, especially because international students are initially strangers to each other.
“China’s a very large country. I think people from the north and south have very different habits,” Fei pointed out. “Before I went out for college I only lived in the southern part, and now my roommate is [from northern China].”
Dimobi senses a divide between international and domestic students.
“You see people separate into groups with the same color of skin,” she said. “It’s just the easiest thing to do. So it has to be a conscious effort, an intentional effort, to actually break away.” She also knows the barrier between international and domestic students can often be harder to break and feels like the effort often has to come mostly from the international side.
“I know how much effort I have to make,” she said. “I’m usually the one to make a lot of effort because I know if I don’t make that effort, most people won’t.”
But the effort is clearly worth it for someone like Rodzi — and it all comes back to something as simple as a name.
“When I memorize [someone’s] name, and they memorize my name, it’s a trust I’m developing,” Rodzi said. “I put the effort in myself, because I want to know people. When I bond with people, I feel officially a part of the Vanderbilt community.”
— News reporter Gabrielle Timm contributed to this report.