International students’ reception of news from home differs

William Witwer

Imagine the commercial district of one of the world’s biggest cities forced to a halt for two months of protest. Imagine a deposed dictator attempting to return to power by staging those protests, paying people to camp out on the largest street of the city. Imagine the protests turning violent. Now imagine living at Whitman last spring while all this was going on and having to take exams and write papers, all the while filled with worry. Meet Rimmy Doowa, an international student from Bangkok, Thailand.

“Being at Whitman, having to take exams and everything and deal with this, it was incredibly difficult,” said Doowa. “I secretly cried once because I was so worried. Especially when you’re not home, and you can’t see exactly what’s happening, the media seems to overstate everything, but you never know if it’s true or not.”

Doowa’s particularly extreme circumstances highlight one difference between international students and their American peers: news from home, particularly disastrous news, can be incredibly isolating. Maherin Ahmed, from Bangladesh, explained that though she loves Whitman, she is homesick 24 hours a day, seven days a week, mainly because of how different everything appears. According to Ahmed, if any kind of national catastrophe happens back home, the college bubble doesn’t allow students to process the tragedy on an emotional or practical level.

“My freshman year there was a huge flood in my country,” said Ahmed. “That was kind of difficult for me, especially because when you’re far away you’re more concerned because you don’t know exactly what’s going on . . . At the beginning it was very very hard for me to grasp that people were not understanding where I’m coming from, and I also realized that I could not give a practical explanation. Now I think I have learned to deal with it myself more.”

Both Ahmed and Doowa are in regular contact with their families through Skype, though Ahmed said that her parents try to hide bad domestic news by not mentioning negative stories. If and when there is an earthquake or another natural disaster, a realistic concern, Ahmed and her parents will continue to talk.

“I think it’s difficult for my parents to give me death news, of relatives and friends or people who we have known for a really long time. I think they are worried how I’ll take it,” said Ahmed. “Usually they don’t tell me that people have died, and then after a year I find out that they are dead, when I go back home and they say, ‘Oh this aunt passed away’ or whatever.”

During Thailand’s spring strife, however, Doowa and her parents were in an almost constant state of open conversation. Much of her information would come at times of high stress because she would talk with her parents over Skype around 2 a.m. (Thailand is 14 hours ahead). Though her family remained safe, the level of violence was incredibly worrisome, and the damage had a negative impact on tourism, Thailand’s primary industry. Doowa remembers seeing a picture of the Sky Train she had once ridden extensively covered in barbed wire, shut down.

Kris Barry, international student and scholar advisor, explained that whenever she and the school knows about a problem like this, they attempt to provide whatever support they can. Especially compared with a state school, the international community at Whitman is small, and the school devotes significant resources for support.

“Usually, there’s an amazing amount of support, as compared to other campuses,” said Berry. “We know the students better, they aren’t just a number.”

Though many Whitman students and professors expressed concern, and though it was always well-intentioned, Doowa’s situation became hard to deal with.

“When someone comes up to you, with a really sad pity face and puts their hand on your shoulder, it’s really hard to just be like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine!'” said Doowa.

Though Doowa found it hard to be a student, combined with her activities as a member of SCHWA and president of SASA, being in the Whitman bubble was oddly comforting. Though she followed the events of last spring closely, it was much easier to focus on college.

“Whitman just kept me really busy, in a good way, getting things done, being productive,” said Doowa. “Basically being in kind of a Whitman bubble, but not really. Being aware of the outside world, but knowing that Whitman is more important right now. What are you gonna do?”