A World of Differences
International students rise to the challenge of adapting to their new lives at Illinois
International student Shinsuke Mizuno gets global.
By Sarah Hedgespeth ’04
Photos by Marc Featherly
Seated in the middle of a Memorial Center meeting room, Mai Nguyen quietly listens
to the strangers around her as they introduce themselves, explaining where they are
from and why they have traveled from afar to be here on this rainy, August afternoon.
When her time to speak arrives, the young Vietnamese woman’s placid exterior gives
way to express the strong emotions she is feeling.
“I’m sorry, I’m just so scared,” she finally confesses, trying in vain to fight back
tears. “I don’t know anyone here or where anything is. I just feel so alone.”
Nguyen and nine other first-year international students who are meeting for the first
time together soon find out they are not so alone. Addressing the group, and attempting
to calm their fears, is Petra Visscher, director of IWU’s Study Abroad and International
Student Advising office. This is the second year in a row that Visscher has led the
program, designed specifically to help incoming international students ease into their
new surroundings before the school year gets under way.
As they begin their first year of college, almost all students experience anxiety,
homesickness, and stress. International students must deal with these emotions and
many more. They must adjust not only to a new school, but also to a new country, a
new culture, and, often, a language that has not been their primary form of communication.
The goal of the orientation, Visscher later explains, is to help the new students
“become better acquainted with America, Illinois, Bloomington–Normal, and the Illinois
Wesleyan campus.” Over the next four days, the 10 students will attend sessions examining
issues such as how their expectations for life in America may differ from reality,
and the ways that American professors encourage and measure success in the classroom.
Another workshop covers American mannerisms, including colloquialisms used in everyday
conversations, proper table manners, and other forms of social etiquette.
The students are also prepared for more mundane and practical aspects of their new
lives. At a later date, they visit a local bank to open checking accounts. On another
outing, they undergo a “scavenger hunt” designed to help them negotiate the city bus
system. Using only a town map, a bus schedule, and a series of clues, students must
find their way to malls, supermarkets, and other commonly used places of business.
At night, the orientation switches gears to help students relax and get to know one
another in a more social setting. During a dinner outing at a local Mexican restaurant,
the students—many of whom have scarcely heard of a burrito or taco—laugh and joke
as they puzzle over their menus. “It’s very spicy,” Japanese exchange student Mari
Mori later comments. “I don’t know if I will eat it again, but it was fun to try.
At the end of their orientation, IWU’s newest international students are noticeably
more relaxed, enjoying the bonds of friendship they have formed with each other over
the past four days. Yet they also realize that their journey at Illinois Wesleyan
has barely begun. Next week they will begin the weeklong Fall Festival, an orientation
for all first-year students. During that week, their first real challenges of adjusting
to American college life will occur as they meet other new students, register for
classes, and adjust to their living arrangements.
For her part, Petra Visscher makes it a point to stay in touch with all the first-year
international students to ensure that they are adjusting to their new lives as smoothly
as possible. It’s a job she’s well suited for, having been an international student
herself when she left her home in the Netherlands to attend the University of Florida.
Visscher tells Illinois Wesleyan’s international students to expect a mixture of emotions
in their first weeks away from home.
“I tell them to give it time. Don’t phone home in a week and tell your parents, ‘I
want to come back.’ I went through that—and I’ve been here now over 20 years.”
Visscher continues, “You go through cycles of liking or disliking your situation,
and at times you can feel very lonely, but you need to realize that’s okay.” To counter
those emotions, she encourages students to “take charge” of their freshman experience
by actively seeking out what Illinois Wesleyan has to offer: “lectures, evening activities,
performances, and the like.”
While Visscher encourages international students to assume a positive outlook, she
knows that many will confront severe bouts of homesickness, even depression—especially
during their initial months as students. Sophomore Teddy Chung vividly recalls those
“I had been studying English from an early age [in Korea] and knew a lot about the
culture coming into it. I expected it to be easy,” Chung says. “But those first few
months, I was pretty depressed.”
According to Visscher, her office and Counseling Services are always available to
consult with students dealing with adjustment problems. “Students stop by to talk
about problems all the time. Others though, they keep it inside. They don’t tell anybody.”
“As long as you keep everything inside, not even admitting to yourself that you’re
depressed, the problem grows,” Chung agrees. “At least it did for me. When I admitted
it, I came to grips with everything, and I realized that I didn’t have to feel this
The silver lining for students who’ve had a hard time adjusting to University life
is that “once you learn how to cope in a situation like this, you can always find
friends and live anywhere,” says Visscher. She adds, “Illinois Wesleyan is a great
environment for international students to learn those coping skills. It’s small enough
that you get personal attention, and friendly enough that you can meet a lot of different
people and find the support that you need to succeed.”
New Arrivals: The incoming first-year class of international students include: (front)
Yusuke Hirakawa, Nadine Wolff; (second row) A-Zin Oo, Mai Nguyen, Suneeti Gupta, Mari
Mori, Nikolay Stoyanov; (third row) Debo Olaosebikan, Shinsuke Mizuno, and Victor
Among the 48 international students now enrolled at the University, most look at their
IWU experience as a very practical means toward achieving future goals.
For 16-year-old Nigerian scholar Debo Olaosebikan, those future goals involve physics
and electrical engineering. He says that going abroad for college is very common among
Nigerian students because, while one could study subjects like literature or history
at home, his country’s schools lack the technology necessary to train for fields like
science or computers. Other students, including chemistry/biology double major Nguyen
or English major Nadine Wolff from Germany, chose to study in America to improve their
The University’s more intimate size and its reputation for academic excellence are
two of its strongest selling points for prospective international students, according
to Paul Schley, director of International Admissions at Illinois Wesleyan.
“My counselor actually selected IWU for me,” says senior Awo Osei-Anto from Ghana.
“I really wanted to study in the U.S. and applied to a number of schools, but Illinois
Wesleyan seemed to be the best fit for me. Some students in Ghana apply to schools
that are too advanced for them, and others to schools that are beneath them, but IWU
has a great academic reputation and was looking to diversify, which was big for me.”
Among Illinois Wesleyan’s faculty, international students have reputations as hardworking,
productive scholars. “We are proud of the high academic achievement of our international
students while they attend Illinois Wesleyan,” says IWU President Minor Myers jr.
“Given their records, we always expect them to graduate with honors on their way to
However, as with other aspects of their life at Illinois Wesleyan, academic success
for international students is often hard-earned and requires an intense period of
adjustment. Many of the students come from education systems where they have a single
exam at the end of the semester, and they are unprepared to deal with the term papers,
quizzes, experiments, and exams that are staples of American college coursework.
“I was shocked during the first week here because of the huge amount of homework,”
says Nguyen. “I spent my Labor Day weekend in the library, while all my friends [from
Illinois] went home!”
Satish Lohani, a sophomore from Nepal, agrees that getting used to Illinois Wesleyan
classes can be a struggle. “In Nepal, I only had one to three exams a year, and we
weren’t allowed to participate in class,” he says. “Class was much more formal. The
teacher spoke, and you gave him your full attention, never speaking yourself. Initially,
participating during class was very weird for me.”
Another stumbling block to class participation can be language. Madoka Yamazaki admits
that, so far, she has been afraid to talk in class. The young Japanese woman is taking
a variety of classes at IWU (rather than focusing on a major during her one-year stay
in the U.S.), but she has yet to speak in any of them. Although her fellow students
have never commented negatively about her English-speaking skills, Yamazaki worries
that she would not be able to effectively communicate an opinion in class. “It makes
me very nervous of what the other students will think of me,” she admits.
Although Yamazaki’s fellow Japanese exchange student, Yusuke Hirakawa, had spent considerable
time in America before coming to Illinois Wesleyan, he also expresses frustrations
about language. “It’s still hard to understand the other students in my classes,”
he says. “It is almost like they try to impress the professor by speaking quickly,
and I cannot understand them. But talking with my friends Nadine [Wolff] and Mari
[Mori] is comfortable. They pace themselves and do not use words I would not know.
People pacing themselves around me is very important and helps a lot.”
International students can also feel frustrated at times about the liberal arts aspect
of Illinois Wesleyan’s curriculum. “In Nigeria, after tenth grade, students choose
either the sciences or the arts, and study only within their chosen area,” Olaosebikan
says. “Sometimes, going to a liberal arts college frustrates me, since I haven’t taken
anything but science since ninth grade. I just get mad that I can’t take what I want
to take and have so many gen-ed requirements.”
It’s often only later in their educations, or even after graduation, that international
students come to appreciate the broad background of subjects they were exposed to
at IWU. Esteban Lizano ’01, who was an economics and business major from Costa Rica,
recalls a class he took his first semester on Russian literature.
“There were political science, psychology, English, and history majors taking the
class, and they all had different takes on the readings,” says Lizano. “It was eye-opening,
and I came to appreciate the liberal arts. It made for some very interesting conversations,
and it was great when I began to feel confident enough to add to those conversations
in an intelligent way.”
Diana Imaka, a 1996 economics graduate from Latvia, is also grateful for her liberal
arts experience. “It was lovely that I could take up dance classes and art...I would
not give up for [anything in] life the opportunity to dance jazz, to do ceramics,
or study psychology. It was simply brilliant.
While IWU’s international students strive to “fit in” to the University community,
it is the differences in their cultural backgrounds and worldviews that makes them
such a valuable presence on campus, according to Professor of Sociology Teodora Amoloza.
“We are teaching today tomorrow’s leaders, and tomorrow’s leaders cannot be effective
if they cannot understand the world from a multi-dimensional perspective,” says Amoloza,
who is director of International Studies at IWU. That’s why international studies
courses are so important to the curriculum, she believes, and why the campus community
needs international students to present fresh perspectives in classroom and social
Nikolay Stoyanov, a freshman from Bulgaria, is quick to offer his perspective on U.S.
values, as represented in the typical American supermarket. Upon visiting such a store,
Stoyanov said he realized the “depths of American materialism” and the emphasis placed
on acquiring possessions. “Visiting stores here kills the joy of shopping,” he declares.
Satish Lohani was glad to find his opinions were welcome when he wrote a column last
year for The Argus, discussing Illinois Wesleyan, politics, and the world from his
perspective as an international student from Nepal. Many of his columns dealt with
issues from his home, informing the campus community about his country and the challenges
International students also find a rewarding connection to the campus community by
becoming language tutors. New students Mari Mori, Madoka Yamazaki, and Yusuke Hirakawa
are Japanese tutors, and Nadine Wolff tutors German.
When speaking of his tutoring job, Hirakawa’s face lights up. “I felt very happy to
hear an American student speaking to me in my language, instead of it being the other
way around,” he says.
Having confidence in what they have to offer the Illinois Wesleyan community is a
key to success for international students, according to Awo Osei-Anto. Many international
students find that trying to adjust can be as simple as letting others see their personalities,
learn about them, and really get to know them.
“I am not a shy person, so adjusting for me was not very hard,” Osei-Anto said. “All
you have to do is open up. It’s easy to say, but can be hard to do. Once you open
up, though, everything is easier.”
That is exactly what Mai Nguyen has found to be true. The most important lesson she
said she’s learned since her first day of orientation is that “kindness yields kindness
in return.” To commemorate the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks this
past fall, some of the women from Nguyen’s residence-hall floor put up patriotic decorations.
After helping to deck the halls with red, white and blue, Nguyen hopped in the shower.
When she returned to her room, she was greeted with a Vietnamese flag hanging alongside
all the American decorations. She later learned her floor mates had ordered it online
to show her that they cared about her and her heritage.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was so surprised,” she says. “Flags from my country are
hard to get, so I was so happy that my new friends had done this for me.”
Nguyen has been spending a lot of time with her new friends, going to the school’s
Homecoming dance with them and eating meals together. She’s not lonely anymore and
is, in fact, enjoying some of her newfound independence.
“[Adjusting] isn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” Nguyen says. “It’s very scary
at first, and it takes some time, but it’s not so bad.”