International students in America’s colleges and universities both shrink the world and expand it. Their experiences enrich their understanding of what America is all about—in the classroom and in the larger context of campus and community. They give Americans a taste of other cultures and at the same time embody human diversity and common dreams.
Wenjun (Aileen) Zhao, University of California, Irvine
A resident of Shanghai, Aileen was brought up in traditional Chinese fashion. “I was told to obey the rules since the day I was born,” she says. “Of course, some people don’t follow [them], but I did. Hence, from the first day I went to school, I was ‘the good kid.’”
Aileen says her first independent decision was when she told her father she wanted to study abroad in America. She came to the United States for her last two years of high school (King’s Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee, while staying with a host family). Following graduation, she applied to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (UTK). Her parents insisted she major in business. She chose accounting. But after a month, she felt the program wasn’t right for her. “In China, girls are good at literature and the arts while boys are good at science. But an American friend told me to do what I wanted, to forget the rules.” So Aileen went to the college of engineering and changed her major—without telling her parents.
Aileen prepared 10 reasons to justify her change of major, so she was surprised when her parents didn’t challenge the decision and accepted the fact Aileen could now determine her own life!
After graduating from UTK with an electrical engineering degree in 2007, she applied and was accepted in a master’s program at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). She picked UCI for the simplest of reasons: “The weather is great there, and Irvine is one of the safest cities in America. My mother did not need to worry.”
Aileen feels one of her best experiences at UCI (and in America overall) was the overall shift in her world-view. “I didn’t realize how small my world was until I went to college. I learned to be confident, how to deal with different types of people, how to communicate efficiently, how to write a résumé and sell myself, how to maintain a friendship that’s lifelong, how delightful it is to share and to help others.”
Prior to college, Aileen says she wasn’t a people person. “I would rather stay in my own world, do whatever I was told to do, and make it my life. Then I realized how much fun talking with others is, and how great it is to be able to determine my own life and be true to myself.”
After graduating from UCI in 2009 with an M.S. in electrical engineering, Aileen worked for two years at Cisco Systems. However, she soon realized this would not fulfill her dream of doing something to help change the world.
“To change the world, you must change the people. To change the people, you must do so when they are still changeable,” she says. “Then I thought about it: it’s education.”
Now back in China, Aileen works for Shanghai Langsheng Education Information Consulting Co., Ltd., advising Chinese students on studying in America. “My work is to introduce the U.S.A. to Chinese students so that they will know more than I did when they first come to the States.”
Barbara Gonzalez, Manhattanville College
The daughter of a Tanzanian mother and a Columbian father, Barbara was born and brought up in Dar es Salaam in her mother’s home country. Growing up, she says, she loved being social, going to the beach, and “getting distracted by anything and everyone outside school.”
She studied under the International Baccalaureate Diploma curriculum. In addition, all students had to complete 150 hours of community service within a two-year period. Barbara completed hers helping mentally challenged kids and tutoring public school students in English.
College was always in her future. “I don’t think my parents really gave me the option to opt out, and I’m grateful to them for that. What really interested me was economics and international relations. But finding a school with a wide range of majors was really crucial, as at 18 my interests were constantly changing.
“I chose to study at Manhattanville College [in Purchase, New York] because of its connection to the United Nations. It had always been my dream to work at the UN, so I chose a college that had a direct connection to the organization.” Additionally, the experience of a living with a first-year roommate and doing class projects, Barbara explains, helps prepare students for working with others and learning different lifestyles.
Majoring in economics and political science with a minor in women’s studies, Barbara and some of her peers founded the Coalition on Violence Against Women, her favorite activity. “It was comprised of a small group of people interested in discussing women’s rights issues both locally and globally. Our group went to family-planning rallies, feminist book clubs, and even presented an academic panel at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women.”
After graduating in 2012, she enrolled in the London School of Economics, where she is currently studying development management for her Master of Science degree. This is one more step in the pursuit of her hope to someday work for the United Nations. “My goals haven’t changed, but I’ve become more realistic about my dreams. Typically we do not get our ideal position straight after college, so I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll need to get experience in a few jobs in the same sector before I reach my dream of working at the UN.”
Barbara says the biggest lesson she has learned is that regardless of her background or education “there is always some element of surprise and shock when moving to a new city/country. It’s not easy to automatically grasp the customs that exist in a particular place, especially if you’re not from that continent itself. I think over the years I’ve learned to adapt to many situations; however, no new situation has been easy for me because ‘new’ automatically means it’s unknown territory. And with every unknown territory comes a major learning curve.”
Maria Fernanda Cuadra, Loyola University New Orleans
Born and raised in Managua, Nicaragua, Maria’s homeland played a big role in defining who she is today.
“Nicaragua is a country with tremendous social inequality; I always felt a drive to help make a change. I actually got interested in development economics and social justice when I was in high school. I was part of several service groups, and we visited both schools and the houses of elders in very impoverished areas.”
As president of the student body her senior year at Colegio Teresiano (St. Teresa’s Academy), Maria says she made sure their school projects included fundraising activities to help the poor. Graduating when she was 16 (high school typically goes only to the 11th grade there), Maria then took a year off. First she lived in France, and then she spent six months as a visiting student in Irvington High School in Westchester, New York.
“The idea was for me to get immersed in the language and the culture and to get some guidance about whether I wanted to come to college in the U.S. As I was part of the senior class and they were all in the process of choosing and applying to colleges, I decided to engage in the process as well.”
She says being able to talk to recruiters and get exposed to the advantages of an education in America helped make her decision easy. Loyola University New Orleans caught her attention because of its size, its Jesuit education (which has, Maria notes, “an awesome reputation in Latin America”), and its location.
Her biggest challenge, she says, was adjusting to the academic demands at Loyola. However, “I was lucky to meet wonderful friends at the beginning of my freshman year. Going through the first months of college together made things much easier.”
Her favorite activity was her involvement with the Ignacio Volunteers, fundraising and preparing for trips to Jamaica. She made two missionary trips to work with the poor and came back feeling grateful and blessed.
Maria also loved exploring New Orleans. “The city has so much to offer: live music, festivals, and parades . . . great food and venues, a very chill vibe, and extremely friendly people.”
Graduating in 2012 with a Bachelor of Business Administration in economics and finance (a double major), Maria joined CitiBank in New York City with the Latin American Department. “I love my job! It is fast paced, intellectually challenging, and at the same time it’s always a lot of fun.”
Maria looks forward to attending graduate school for a master’s degree or M.B.A. and eventually returning to Nicaragua to begin a foundation with a focus on education and microfinance.