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Mace & Crown | October 23, 2017

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Cultural Conversations: International students at ODU

James Finney | Contributing Writer

It’s an everyday occurrence at ODU. As you walk to the Webb for lunch, head to BAL for your next class or sit down and relax by Starbucks, you do so in the company of students from over 97 different countries. They’re just like you. Pulling all nighters for their next biology exam, or sweating over making new friends their first day on campus. The only real thing that sets them apart, is their background. The colorful histories of the approximately 25,000 enrolled students, including our near 1,000 international students, paints a bright picture that inspires conversation and growth everyday.

The international students are a crucial section of that picture and according to College Factual, they’re a key part of what lands ODU in the top 20 percent for diverse colleges in the US. Our university distinguishes itself with a more worldly and cultural atmosphere than many others.

Not one student’s life is more esteemed than another, but all students lead exemplary lives in their own way. A cultural conversation with international students can provide a window in to some of these exemplary lives.

Two international students and I were coming back from class together when we sat down in the Webb Center to escape the summer heat and talk. As we’re sitting down at a table, some of the students passing by notice us. Other international students stop and say hi. When you’re thrust into a new environment, you learn to make friends quickly.

“Can you imagine, we were talking earlier today about how different everything is in the states? The main thing is small talk. Everybody here is asking ‘how are you?’ or ‘how was your day?’ I can’t tell if it’s sincere,” Irina Pukhovskaya told me at the table. “Everyone is saying ‘hi’ in the street. We actually don’t do that unless you know the person.”

I’ve made friends with a lot of international students since I’ve come to ODU. They come from many different walks of life and yet in many ways they are just like any American you meet on the street. Everyone wants to smile and laugh. Everyone wants to live life to the best of their abilities. Everyone wants to connect. Two of these students, Irina Pukhovskaya and Velimir Lukhovitsy, from Russia and Montenegro, respectively, were caught off guard by how approachable and kind Americans can be.

“Sometimes people just help you out on the street,” Irina says. “I was in the airport in Chicago and my flight arrived late. I had fifteen minutes until the boarding, and one woman from my flight said, ‘Just run!’ She took my things and just ran with me to the gate. I was really surprised. In Russia that kindness is usually reserved for family and close friends.” The surprise was somewhat lessened for the two though, as they were prepared for their semester-long stay at ODU by the UGRAD program. UGRAD is a student exchange program financed by the U.S. State Department and administered through World Learning. UGRAD has worked with over 2,000 international students since 2008. All expenses are financed by UGRAD and students are provided with a stipend meant for traveling across the state during their one semester abroad.

Velimir goes into more detail about how he obtained his semester-long stay at ODU, “The application process for me was very spontaneous. I didn’t really plan on doing the exchange program. I just sort of stumbled upon the form in November. I actually submitted the application and then I completely forgot about it for a few months.”

Irina’s eyes light up. She tilts her head up and laughs at Velimir, slamming her hands down on the table in front of us.

If you ever have the pleasure of meeting Irina, she’ll have you believing you’re a comedian in seconds. Velimir and Irina haven’t known each other for long, but they joke and rib each other like they’re already best friends. She quickly chimes in, “I was actually on time! He forgot to mention that there are many documents that need to be sent and essays that need to be written in English.”

Velimir and Irina weren’t strangers to English before they applied to the UGRAD program. In Russia, Montenegro and many other countries, learning English is a part of the curriculum from a young age. That doesn’t mean that they were fully prepared for all of their English tests however, Irina tells me, “In Russia we learn to read and write English from a very young, we learn to listen, too. However, we do not get much practice speaking language. I had to learn to speak through a friend that lives in America.”

“The same is true in Montenegro,” said Velimir. “We are not taught to speak English for the most part, however our grammar and spelling is very good. Most of what I learned about speaking and listening I got from American movies, games, and TV.”

It’s commonplace in many countries in Europe to have American media available to them in English, with the native language in subtitles for the film. Montenegro is one such country, however in Russia, most American films are dubbed into Russian.

Left: Irina Pukhovskaya Right: Velimir Lukhovitsy. Photo by James Finney

Once the application and essay work are sent, applicants must wait for word back from the US embassy.

Velimir goes into what happens once when they hear back about their application, “At the beginning of February, I received the email that I passed through the first round of selection and that I was invited to do an interview at the embassy. Then once I got past that it was a matter of sending them more documents to get my visa.”

For many of the near 1,000 international students attending ODU, the embassy interview is the first taste of what American culture is like for them. “You could immediately experience how different people behave. Even the building looked different from the rest of the country,” Velamir explains the differences between the US embassy, and the rest of Montenegro. He smiles and continues, “It was like the cultural preparation tour before the cultural preparation tour.”

Candidates are invited a second time to the embassy after the interview. The purpose of this meeting is to show students how different life in America is compared to inside their own country. A formal orientation is prepared where the embassy demonstrates how Americans tend to conduct themselves and how different our customs are compared to the candidate’s homeland.

Irina beams as she listens to Velimir talk about how the embassy prepares you for a stay in the United States. There’s clearly more to it than just those few things.

She perks up and explains to me some of the little things about the states that she notices, “Everything in America is different, down to the little things. In Russia, when you walk into a grocery store you take your jacket off, it’s fairly warm. In America, I take my sweater with me to grocery stores. It’s so cold!”

Irena holds herself like she’s cold, smiles and goes on, “But the most important thing to me is the smiling. I love to smile, and when I smile here people smile back.”

I ask Velimir to follow up and he says, “I would say, we had a lot of stereotypes about Americans, especially because of the history between our countries.” My friend Velimir comments on the history between the U.S. and Montenegro, “They [Americans] are a lot more like us than we were lead to believe. I really feel like I’m home, even though I’ve only been here for a short time.”

Several days after my conversations with Velimir and Irena, I met with another international student, Monika Arora from India. Intelligent and articulate, Monika came to the United States to do research. She is currently working on her Ph.D. and has been living here for four years now. She has deep ties to Norfolk in the form of friends and families that she is very close to. She’s seen how the many different opinions and walks of life coexist together.

In her words, it’s not too different from home.

“In India, you are also free to share your own views. You’re free. I didn’t have many cultural shocks. There are gay people here and in India. There are Hindus and Muslims living together. Each state has its own culture. The basics of life are different but the culture wasn’t surprising.”

With India being the largest democracy in the world, it shares a special relationship with the United States. India is America’s second-largest trading partner, and America is India’s largest investment partner. The two nations have worked hard to forge a strong connection and a majority of Americans and Indians view each other favorably.

“In India, everyone wants to go somewhere in America and there are lots of American companies in India. The work culture and opportunities are better here than in India. Things are more structured here. The roads are good, there are big malls and grocery stores. The competition is not too much. The population is not too much.”

I asked Monika what she had heard about the US and what she thought of Americans before she came here.

“Good and bad things both actually. The good is that I thought everyone was educated and happy. When I came here though, I realized that people here have the same problems that everyone does. I also didn’t expect didn’t them to be so welcoming and worldly.”

“Welcoming and worldly?” I asked.

“I’ve stayed with families where they understand my culture,” said Monika. “You can talk about the food with them. I could learn more about the politics with them. In the media, it looks like everyone is at their throats but the reality is completely different.”

It’s a belief in many nations that Americans don’t pay attention to what’s happening in the rest of the world. For the most part, however, Monika hasn’t encountered that stereotype of the ‘ignorant American.’

“People have asked me ignorant questions for sure,” she said. “‘Do you have to go to a well to get water,’ or, ‘do you ride elephants or camels.’ I’ve read online of people asking if there is an airport in Mumbai. There are people who live in their shells, but that’s everywhere I think. I didn’t know about poverty in America. I thought everyone would be educated but that was ignorance on my part. Pretty much everybody has been welcoming and accepting.”

“I realized that people here have the same problems that everyone does,” Monika Arora. Photo by Tayla Mallory

Monika’s experiences and answers on stereotypes reveal an interesting truth. We all hold expectations about how the world will be different, but we rarely stop to think about how similar we all be. And despite the differences that we do actually have, a lot of the time, we find ways to connect with each other every day.

“I have been to Europe and I have been to the U.S.,” Monika says, summarizing her point. “I have friends that have traveled to Europe and I have a general idea of the world. In a broader sense, we are all very similar. What is good to you and what is bad to you varies but things are similar. India and America have different issues with quality of life, water, versus college.”

“There are problems in all countries,” said Monika, “it’s a matter of relativity.”