New perspectives

Posted: August 18, 2011

International students face unique challenges, gain unique insights

By Frances Hoekstra

You’re in the same English class, you sit next to each other in chapel, and you study in the same library. You’re project partners, you pass each other in the halls, and many of you even sit at the same lunch tables. Yet how many of you understand the challenges of and what it means to be an international student? Their given names (and how to pronounce them) are not always known by their classmates, and many American Minnehaha students don’t know the first thing about what it means to be an international student at MA.

The international students come to America to get a different education than they would get in their own countries, an education filled with more freedom and opportunities. High school, or even younger students come to Minnesota from China and South Korea through private agents (there is no common organization that all international students use) who connect them to Minnehaha. Most live with host families, some enjoy playing sports and others experiment in the fine arts.

While all MA students share the experience of being teenagers going to school and being surrounded by American culture, the point of view through which this experience is perceived is dramatically altered when the person is from a foreign country, and no matter which international student is in question one thing remains true: they all have unique stories, struggles and uncertainties.
International students face many challenges that typical American students do not. They immerse themselves in a completely different language and culture. They struggle with visa issues, host family complications and in some cases they even have trouble affording proper food. Korean senior Jai Woo Lee (whose English name is Jay Lee) faces some of these problems.

“I have to do everything basically,” Lee said. ” I have to figure out how to pay for my apartment. I get money from my parents, but I’m the one to do everything like figure out documents for school or college.”

Lee doesn’t live with a host family like most international students do. Lee lives with his sister, senior Joo Eun Lee, in a four-floor senior citizen care house for Korean women. The third floor is for students (though the Lee siblings are the only students currently livng there), and the first floor is where Lee’s agent lives (agents connect students to MA and help them into the United States).

In addition to having to learn how to live on his own, Lee has experienced ‘culture shock’ when encountering American values and behavior.

“During the classroom some guys put their legs on the desk or something like that,” Lee said. “It’s very rude in my country, like I can’t even imagine doing that. [Some] teachers are fine [with that] here, but I still can’t do that even though I’ve been here four years.”

Korean senior Jung-ook Shin (whose English name is Jun Shin) also lives differently than many American teens. He lives with an American host family, but they don’t overly concern themselves with each other.

“They don’t really bound me,” Shin said. “They do have some limits on me, but we’re kind of in a ‘don’t-care zone’. But they’re really nice, I talk to them a lot.”

Shin likes to play soccer and played for the Redhawks last year, but he decided against it this year. Athletic eligibility for international students only allows one year of playing at the JV level or lower, which is a restriction most high school athletes don’t have to deal with.

Though differences between American students and international students are apparent in athletic eligibility, English teacher Kristofor Sauer dissolves that dividing line in his classroom.

“Every student who walks through my door is expected to rise to the same high standard,” Sauer said.

Shin thinks being an international student has been worth it because it’s helped him get a clearer idea of his future.

“I didn’t really have a vision of my life, but after coming here and living by myself I kind of have a goal,” Shin said. He will be attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison next year and wants to go into medical research.

Another thing that doesn’t come into play with most American students is thinking about basic constitutional rights. The First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

People in the United States generally have the right to do what they want when they want, but not everyone in the world can say that. International students from Communist China are not guaranteed these rights, including sophomore Danica Liu and junior Lizhu Huang (whose English name is GiGi).

“I feel more free here,” Huang said. “I can have more time to do what I want to do. In China I just only study. I can share my interest in fine arts and enjoy the different culture here.”

While living in America has helped Huang break free of the standard track in China it has also thrown roadblocks in her way, including the language barrier.

All international students face the challenge of adapting to communicating almost entirely in English, but Huang deals with an additional language problem. She lives with a South Korean family whose daughter, junior Stefanie Lim, also studies at Minnehaha. They can’t speak each other’s first languages,but they communicate in English.

Junior Jaimee Sanders has class with Huang and notices behavior different than many American students.

“I feel like international students are more quiet and to-themselves, and in class they’re way more respectful than the American students,” Sanders said.

Transportation is another issue international students face. Chinese senior Tianshuang Gao (whose English name is Michael Gao) lives here with his uncle who goes to college in the city. Gao has to take the bus every day which is an inconvenience, but there is no other option. Gao can’t drive and can’t get his license at his current age due to a Minnesota state driving law for non-citizens.

The Minnesota winters are another factor that the international students like sophomore Jin Tao have to adjust to.

“The most difficult thing for me is the weather,” Tao said. “I came from a city near Hong Kong and Hong Kong is the city where the season is almost like summer, and Minnehaha has the longest winter!”

Tao said that it took her body some time to adjust to the freezing temperatures. She also had to adjust to the shift in academic focus between China and the U.S. Tao said that in China high school students spend a lot of time preparing for major tests at the end of the year that will be shown to colleges. To get ready for these major tests students take a lot of preparatory exams in school. Tao said in China she feels like they spend a lot of time memorizing facts and looking for specific answers, while at Minnehaha students go more in depth in topics.

“[At Minnehaha Academy] there are lots of projects,” Tao said. “We have to do teamwork, we have to search on the Internet for some stuff and not just focus on the specific problem. We have to use our brains.”

Tao feels that coming to America has broadened her perspective.

“When I came to Minnehaha Academy, I think more about something other than just myself.”

While international students have different issues than American students do, it doesn’t mean they have nothing in common. Sophomore Aliyah Tyner thinks that international students aren’t very different from American students.

“I don’t see any difference between the international students and our students. They are interactive and they like doing things that [American] teenagers like to do,” Tyner said.

Junior Van Donkersgoed sees positive differences between international students and American students.

“The language barrier is a little bit of a problem, but in some ways it helps [the] classroom environment. The teacher takes more time to explain something to an international student that they might just breeze over because everybody speaks English,” Donkersgoed said.

Though being an international student presents challenges that American teens in American schools don’t usually have to face, it often provides students like Gao with a unique type of entertainment.

“[I like] talking a really different language in front of your guys,” Gao said, “and making your guys get confused.”

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