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Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Not tourists, not citizens: International students discuss identity in flux

When Whitman students returned to campus this month, few were faced with the daunting prospect of a 13-hour overseas flight.

Not so for international students such as junior Surabhi Veenapani, who makes these long trips back to India at least once a year.

The sense of physical and psychological displacement that accompanies shifting back and forth between time zones is a familiar feeling for international students, who deal with culture shock both in their home countries and at Whitman on a regular basis.

“Right after going back home, I have to transition back to thinking in Bulgarian and [making] sure that I know what is going on politically and within my family,” said senior Elena Zheglova.

Growing up in one of Bangkok’s few gated communities, junior Rimmy Doowa became accustomed to a diverse environment which also prepared her for the cultural adjustment of attending school in America.

“At home I’m so exposed to American culture that sometimes I see more foreigners than Thai people,” she said.

For Veenapani, it was difficult being labeled by students as one of the “internationals,” after attending a diverse high school with 200 students representing over 80 countries.

“[As a first-year] I had to fight so much harder to been seen as part of the community. Some people saw the differences as barriers,” she said.

Zheglova also found it frustrating to be constantly identified as a foreigner and placed into the role of spokesperson for her country, especially as a first-year and sophomore.

“I feel like a foreigner when people seem uncomfortable talking to me, asking me questions about Bulgaria or finding nothing else to talk about but Eastern Europe,” she said.

One of the primary goals of Whitman’s Intercultural Center is to help international students: who make up approximately 19.5 percent of the Whitman community according to the college website: deal with these frustrations and displaced sense of identity. Those interviewed especially appreciate the International Students and Friends Club as a forum to come together and share tips and experiences. International students are also partnered with local Walla Walla families through the International Friendship Family Program, an organization that offers students another outlet for support especially during school breaks.

For Doowa, Whitman’s strong support system for international students put her parents at ease when she arrived on campus as a first-year. When Doowa originally looked at schools abroad she was encouraged by her parents to look at schools in the United Kingdom and Australia.

“America was off-limits. My family was worried that I would come back spoiled and arrogant,” Doowa said.

Tumi Mothei, a senior from Botswana, suggests that these stereotypes, which were also pervasive in his community, develop out of mass media’s distortions of American values: television shows and movies often portraying a glamorous and materialistic culture predominant in cities like New York and Miami.

When he goes back to Botswana, Mothei tries to correct his friends’ misconceptions and generalizations about American culture but is met with some wariness.

“People think that with my education and liberated thought process I’m going to try to acculturate them,” he said.

Going home and attending cultural events like weddings remind Doowa that spending so much time abroad has changed her.

“It’s overwhelming and awkward. That’s when I feel the most American,” Doowa said.

When asked if they plan to stay in America after graduation and even apply for citizenship, many international students feel pulled in multiple directions.

“Going back to Botswana would be downgrading. I would be yearning to come back to the comforts, safety and cleanliness, but family is the compensation,” said Mothei.

Veenapani does not plan to stay in India, wanting to continue living what she terms “a nomadic lifestyle.”

“There’s so much competition in India. It’s 100 times harder to get into India’s top colleges,” she said.

Regardless of where they plan to live after graduation, international students emphasize how lucky they feel to have the opportunity to study at Whitman.

“Going to Whitman is the longest I’ve ever stayed in one place. The first place I ever felt homesick for was Anderson Hall,” said Veenapani.

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