Whitman College through an international lens

Karah Kemmerly

Illustration: Emily Johnson

MECCA’s living room is warm and lined with strands of Christmas lights, a cozy oasis from the early signs of winter weather brewing outside: primarily because sophomore Nandini Rathi has set the house thermostat at 77 degrees.

“It’s more like home for me,” she said.

I met up with Rathi, who is originally from northern India, and fellow international students sophomores Ivana Vukovic and Nilce Alvarez, from Montenegro and Ecuador respectively, to find out more about their experiences with Whitman’s unique culture.

Pio:  What made you decide to come to Whitman?

NR: I found Whitman through UWC (United World College) Mahindra, my high school. I knew someone who ended up going to Whitman.

IV: My story is similar to Nandini’s. I heard about it at UWC in Hong Kong.

NA: I had moved to the States and had been working a year. I applied to Whitman so I could finish my studies in philosophy, which didn’t happen, by the way. It was my seventh school I applied to.

Pio:  What about Whitman was appealing to you?

IV: I loved the website. Especially the pictures of windmills. It seemed that Whitman really cared about the environment, and I liked that. It also said that Whitman was looking for people with diverse backgrounds.

NR: I also liked the diversity thing. And frankly, I wasn’t really aware of the difference between Washington and Washington, D.C.

NA: Let’s go see Obama! [laughs] I chose Whitman because it is one hour away from the Tri-Cities, which is where I was living. That way my mom wouldn’t be worried that I would disappear. I also knew that a private college would give more financial aid than all the public schools.

Pio:  Have you noticed any trends among Whitman students?

IV: I didn’t think of what would I be finding here exactly, but I did imagine more people of different skin color, for example. It’s pretty white here. That disappointed me. I didn’t really think of any personality traits.

NR: When I was talking to Srija, she said it was pretty white. I did not come with expectations. It is difficult to speak to trends here because I don’t know trends in other places.

NA: I don’t believe that there is a lack of diversity. Every student here is as diverse as we are. The fact that we come from abroad makes us automatically diverse. I believe that people: because they have a coming nationality: they are mistaken in believing that diversity is from nationality. I’ve met three Americans that are completely different from each other, that each have something to contribute to the campus community. People could embrace differences more. I do believe students are hand-picked by people who see what the college is looking for: personal growth, community growth. Not a lack of diversity, just sometimes a lack of embracing unique traits.

IV: I agree with that definition of diversity. We take for granted our diversity because we come from abroad. At Whitman, you could argue that people in my high school were diverse because they were different. At Hong Kong, people were from different countries and cultural backgrounds. We’re diverse because we have different personalities, different likes and dislikes, but I feel that at Whitman, people are not that dissimilar.

NA: We have so much access to same things and sources: it makes us go about life in the same ways.

IV: I feel that there is a trend of what you’re expected to be like. Someone who cares for world/global issues, environment, community; who cares for people; who is still good at academics. It’s like these things are expected of you. Because there are similar expectations, we are somewhat the same.

NR: Over here, people are different, but I don’t know that they express it in as many different ways as they are capable of. They could be more comfortable about exploring differences here. I see some, but not as much as I’ve seen before.

Pio:  Has anything about Whitman really surprised you?

IV: Dirty dancing. [laughs] It’s true. And I’m thinking about academics here. That surprised me. I didn’t really think that American students are as diligent as people here are. Before I felt that American students are supposed to be doing stuff outside the classroom. But maybe that’s because people are here because they want to do it.

NR: It surprised me how many people are on financial aid and how many have student loans. I only realized recently that lots of people have money to pay back after they graduate. Whitman is supposed to have a lot of money, but the students don’t necessarily have a lot of money.

Pio:  How do you feel about the food here?

NA: As long as there are tomatoes, I’m fine.

IV: As long as there are soups.

NA: It’s not the quality of food, it’s the quantity, the amount wasted. In my country, if people had this amount of food, we’d have solved half our problems.

IV: I agree completely.

NA: Too much can be harmful. I don’t know how someone would tackle that. I see it across the States. Huge burgers, huge people with diabetes. It’s a lot of resources.

IV: That are wasted or misused?

NA: Both.

IV: It hurts to see how much food goes to the trash bin, even at our house, for example.

NA: Somebody’s working on that, I heard.

Pio:  The green leaders are working on a project to reduce waste: No-Waste November.

NA: See: people are aware of it, so it’s a problem. That’s good news. Not just foreigners, but people locally are aware of it.

Pio:  Do people here dress differently than they did at home? How do you feel about campus style?

IV: People dress like they don’t care but they actually care. Like, ‘I did my hair this morning, but I’m going make it seem like I just got out of bed.’

NA: That’s neurotic.

IV: It’s true.

NR: [explaining] They want to show that you are cool without trying to be cool.

NA: It’s no different. It’s all pants and shirts.

Pio:  What do you think of the Whitman dating culture?

NA: The issue is that dating is attached to deep feelings.

NR: We take it as something else. It confuses me. I just don’t understand.

Pio:  How do you take it?

NA: A boy meets a girl, they fall in love, they get married, they have kids. That doesn’t happen here.

IV: Doesn’t happen here.

NA: Something else happens that I don’t understand. I wish the dating scenario was a little bit more clear.

IV: I wish people were more outspoken about their feelings.

NA: People our age . . . it’s a difficult age.

IV: It’s an age problem. Not a Whitman problem.

NA: It’s cultural too, though. Here affection is different than Latin American [affection]. It’s more easily expressed in Latin America. The manifestation of affection, showing it is an issue: everyone has feelings, the difference is how you show them.

IV: [Are you] saying that people here don’t know how to show feelings?

NA: It’s a culture of not showing feelings.

IV: I kind of said that before. But I don’t know that it is a cultural thing. It might be just this age.

NR: Speaking from what I’ve heard from noninternational people, what happens at Whitman is not the definition of what happens in America in general. More a general characteristic of our age. But it’s also different from what I saw growing up. It was more clear then. Here things get lost in between. There’s a lack of spontaneity.

NA: More of a guessing game.

IV: There’s a lack of interest in dating in the first place.

NR: Possibly people think: if we agree that people are academically driven: dating is a responsibility too much on top of academic responsibilities.

NA: It’s in your way.

IV: If I compare this to Montenegro, this is a hookup culture. I don’t experience this back home. Sex requires a whole other level of relationship. You don’t go out to have sex with someone and then come back and think, ‘I just had a sex and it doesn’t matter.’

NA: That’s the way I was raised too.

NR: Hard for me to compare because the culture I was raised in doesn’t acknowledge dating too much itself. Hard to compare models. At home, it’s many different things, and I’ve seen all the spectrums.