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BY TERESA SMITH

 

Reno Mathews is as integrated into campus life as can be. Twenty-three, M.B.A. candidate, president of a student group, sociable, outgoing, and confident, he offers a broad smile and a firm handshake. His English bears no trace of its former Oxford accent, and he exudes the warmth, friendliness, and unreserved helpfulness of someone at ease in his environment, in control.

And yet, Mathews was born and raised in faraway Zambia and came to this country only five years ago, when he enrolled at the University of Miami. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry and molecular biology in 1998. Of the acclimation process he and other international students at the University experience, he says: "I don't think it's impossible to integrate, but there are difficult things to face-cultural differences. It's definitely not an easy thing. There's fear and anxiety about not integrating, a fear that it will be difficult to be accepted."

Mathews, president of the Council of International Students and Organizations (COISO), should know. He has both heard about and felt firsthand the unique challenges and triumphs international students experience. Through COISO, an umbrella organization that brings together the 30-some international student groups formed by the 1,400 international students at the University, he meets new international students constantly and tries to help them find their way, or directs them to others who can offer assistance. In addition, the group sponsors United Nations Day every year in October and International Week in April, a week-long event featuring international cuisine, music, and dancing as represented by the University's large and diverse international student population. New international students also are offered a special, in-depth orientation, yet many encounter culture shock and confusion. Even in a global economy, with McDonald's restaurants and Coke machines in the remotest outposts, misconceptions are bound to arise for students who have never set foot here.

Paskin QuoteDaniel Paskin Photo"All I'd seen of America was what was on TV," Mathews says, echoing the comments of many other international students. "It's a totally different culture, especially in Miami."

Many international students count mostly each other as their friends. Part of the reason may lie in the shared challenges these students face, experiences that often draw them together. Obtaining off-campus work authorization can be difficult, and international students must be enrolled full-time in order to maintain their student status. Dealing with such challenges can bind even students from very disparate cultures together. "We all stick together to deal with it, and we become close," Mathews explains.

Though Mathews is obviously thriving at the University these days, he still gets homesick sometimes. He misses his parents, but is not able to go back home often because of the prohibitive price; the round trip costs about $2,000.

Lindiwe Chuma, a 19-year-old undergraduate scholarship student from Botswana, also yearns for home occasionally. "You feel homesick from time to time," she says with a delicate, melodious laugh. She's also adjusting to a different social life. "A lot of students here are very independent. Students in Botswana socialize more with each other."

Still, Chuma, who is majoring in actuarial science in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been pleasantly surprised by her classes. "The way professors teach is very relaxed. You're not afraid of talking to your professor or asking for help, like in Botswana, where it's formal," she says. "There, you become very selective in what you say. You can't say, 'That's wrong'; you just keep quiet."

Lindiwe Chuma PhotoChuma QuoteOther students are becoming accustomed to the expectations of academic independence at the University. "In Trinidad you were constantly reminded that you had stuff to do or there would be consequences," says M.B.A. student Johann Ali (B.S. '96). "Here, it's more independent, and no one reminds me to study."

Daniel Paskin, a communication graduate student from Brazil, also encountered some differences in academic life in this country. "It took me a few weeks to get used to the American way of studying, and listening to classes in English was really tiring," he says. "But soon after I arrived here from Brazil I found people at the University really professional and eager to help."

Yet even for someone as enthusiastic as Paskin, there are bewildering social adjustments. "In Brazil, especially in Rio, where I come from, we joke all the time," he says. "People here find it a little strange. I don't know why."

These situations are very familiar to Teresa de la Guardia, the director of International Student and Scholar Services. "There are over half a million international students in the United States," she says. "The University is unique in that it offers many departments, including my own, that serve international students."

Even before these students arrive on campus, de la Guardia says, they receive information about the campus environment and special responsibilities, such as their student status with immigration. During a special orientation they learn about the differences between the educational system here and in their countries.

Though most international students consider themselves fortunate to be here, there is always an adjustment period, despite the comprehensive orientation. "We try to give as much information as possible about how things work, but you really don't know how things work until you try to get them to work," de la Guardia explains. In a new country, speaking a new language in a new college with new people, students can easily become overwhelmed, especially in the beginning. De la Guardia's office helps students learn how to work with the system and deal with their homesickness, sometimes by setting them up with another student from their home country.

Upon arrival, says de la Guardia, international students are in a blissful state that sociologist Gregory Trifonovitch calls "the honeymoon stage"-when the students start to believe life here is a dream come true, and everything looks and feels wonderful. Decompensation from that high often comes in the form of a "hostility stage." De la Guardia explains, "They're tired of speaking English, not getting understood, not getting things done easily, and they start wondering if this was a good idea."

Fortunately, the hostility period is followed by a "humor stage," she says, "in which students begin to learn what it is they need to do and have a sense of humor about the whole experience. Things start to work out."

In the final stage of adjustment, students feel at home at the University and in Miami. But this stage, too, can present problems, de la Guardia says. "They can have reverse culture shock when they return home. They send me letters about how difficult it is. Some of them are the very ones I dealt with during the hostility stage, and I was worried about whether they'd make it."

International students also must have the requisite English language skills to study at the University, and the Intensive English Program has long provided this specialized instruction. Established in 1951, the University's program is one of the oldest in the country. "It prepares international students to do academic work in English, most specifically at the University of Miami, but at any American university," says Carol Lazzeri, associate dean at the School of Continuing Studies and director of the Intensive Language Institute, through which the program is offered. "We have about 140 students each term, and we offer three terms each year." The program has five levels. Students may enroll for one or more semesters, depending on their performance on a language placement test.

The number of international students at the University proves their success in adapting to a new language as well as the other aspects of studying abroad. Today, with some 1,400 students from 111 different countries, the University of Miami is something of an international students' United Nations. One of the country's first universities to have an organized international recruitment program, the University of Miami has sent representatives all over the globe to seek qualified students since the 1970s, says Mark Reid, director of International Admission.

Karin Gustafson PhotoGustafson QuoteConceived in 1926 as a Pan-American university, with natural links to the Caribbean and Latin America, the University of Miami came by its international strength quite naturally, but has since greatly expanded its international student population both in absolute numbers and in diversity of origin, even while becoming increasingly selective in admissions. Last fall, for example, international freshman applications reached an all-time high of 1,020, of which 528, or 52 percent of applicants, were admitted.

"Our goal is to recruit highly qualified international students from different regions so that we maintain diversity among the international student population," Reid says. Reasons for the increasing emphasis on diversity are both philosophical and practical. On a philosophical level, it's beneficial for American students to be exposed to other cultures. On a practical level, a university could be hurt by recruiting too heavily from one area. "It's very risky to become over-represented by a particular country or region because of the volatility of world economies," Reid explains. "There are universities that have a third of their student population coming from Asia, and all of a sudden students are having major difficulty affording even state institutions because of the devaluation of their currencies."

In the late 1970s, a couple of universities with a disproportionate number of students from Iran and Nigeria had to close when those countries experienced economic chaos. The University of Miami serves as a barometer for the economy of Latin America. When it is booming, many families send their children to the University, only to pull them out during a bust. "It's a fluctuating enrollment," Reid says.

A truly drastic scenario, however, is extremely unlikely in Miami because of the diversity among the international student body. Even so, the "Asian flu" has had an effect, no doubt playing a major role in reducing the number of students from that continent from 347 in 1997 to 323 in 1998. The University has slowed but not stopped its recruiting efforts in the region.

"Their economies will have up-and-down periods, but we can't abandon them in the difficult times and only visit in the good times," Reid says. "We need to maintain ties and support them any way we can throughout the crisis."

To help students through difficult periods, the University offers deferred tuition payment plans, help with private bank loans, and small loans through the International Student and Scholar Services office.

International students come to study every discipline under the Miami sun, but for undergraduate and graduate students combined, business is the field that draws the most students, Reid says. Engineering is second. In this regard, the University mirrors a national trend. Four or five years ago, engineering was the top draw, but it has since been replaced by business. According to Reid, many countries, particularly in the Middle East, have established their own engineering programs at universities-many with U.S.-educated faculty members. As for business, the United States is an international leader, and the logical place to come to study.

That was the reasoning for Karin Gustafsson, a 23-year-old exchange student from Sweden, who is studying business law at the School of Business Administration. Gustafsson, a law student at the University of Uppsala, says, "Classes at the University of Miami are more lecture-driven than in Sweden, where class discussion predominates." She has learned a great deal from her American classmates' perspectives-like those shared in a recent international relations class on whether the United States should abandon its superpower status.

Outside the classroom Gustafsson has adapted well to life in the States, but the heavy reliance on automobiles is new to her. "In Sweden we can bike or take the train everywhere," she says. She manages by living near campus and using the local mass transit system and the on-campus shuttle bus.

Gufstafsson's Sweden, Mathews' Zambia, Ali's Trinidad, Chuma's Botswana, and Paskin's Brazil are only a few of the countries that can be found on the University's recruiting agenda. Strongly committed to international student recruitment, the University has expanded its outreach and budget in this area. Last year, representatives from the University of Miami traveled to 40 countries, visiting cities such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Shanghai, and Beijing. "We are attempting to expand our recruitment, particularly in Latin America, and to regions where we have not previously recruited," Reid says.

Johann Ali PhotoAli QuoteWith a staff of ten, the University's International Admission office is one of the largest in the country. "We're looking into new markets, secondary markets," Reid says. "In the past we visited the capital cities. Now we're also looking into visiting smaller cities."

Some markets dry up, while others show a new interest. In the Middle East, for example, fewer students are subsidized by their governments to study abroad because over the past ten years the region has been opening its own universities. In Africa, on the other hand, more students are interested in obtaining a higher education abroad. Another trend is for international students, especially graduate students, to study in the United States in short-term programs to acquire a particular set of skills, rather than to enroll in a degree program.

Even so, it is difficult to compete. Some foreign universities are hiring third-party companies to recruit for them. The universities pay a fee per head for each student the company representatives enroll, a practice that many in the United States find unethical. "It's not necessarily in the best interest of the student," Reid says. "Are students really being given the best advice when a company is rewarded for sending them to a particular university? It's not a level playing field, and there need to be changes. We have not yet come to an agreement internationally."

But even in the face of such rugged competition, the University of Miami has a unique appeal that recruiters or anyone else who comes to the campus every day may forget.

"It's the most beautiful university I've ever seen," says Chuma, the Botswanan student.

Other students mention climate as a deciding factor. "I wasn't willing to go to New York and get snow for three months out of the year," says Paskin of Brazil.

The warmth of the emotional climate has helped Paskin weather his difficulties, too. "There are helpful professors, students, people at the international students' office, everyone-it's really amazing," he says. The University's large presence of other international students also helped ease the way. "At orientation, I got to meet more than 200 people from 70 different countries," he says. "You realize, 'Hey, I'm not the only one here who's coming from another part of the world.'"

 

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Teresa Smith is a frequent contributor to Miami magazine. Photography by Donna Victor.

 

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