International students find a home on campus

By Cynthia Edwards

Ji Hye Kim had never traveled outside of Korea before she arrived at the University this January. So when she moved to campus to study East Asian Languages and Cultures, she immediately experienced culture shock.

“Korea is such a small country, so it’s hard to think you’re different from others,” Kim said.

She came to the University because she wanted to learn about a different culture and make friends from other countries. Kim said because of her language barrier, she could not really articulate her opinion when she first arrived.

A church group, Covenant Fellowship Church (CFC), helped her get over her homesickness. Since she was raised in a Christian family in Korea, she said the CFC reminds her of home.

“It feels good not be treated as a different person,” she said.

Esther Im, another member of CFC and a graduate student, came to the University five years ago from Kenya. Though she is now a legal resident of the U.S., Im said she feels more comfortable thinking of herself as an international student and does not consider herself American.

“I went through a lot of experiences that international students are going through now,” Im said.

Im decided to come to the University after a missions team sponsored by CFC came to Kenya. She now actively volunteers with International Fellowship Group (IFG), a chapter of CFC that provides free dinners, English language lessons, church services and social events for international students.

On Saturday evenings, IFG meets and gives free dinner to students. Im helps to cook and plan the dinners and said the food is funded by anonymous donors. IFG also plans to take its members ice skating, bowling and apple picking during the fall semester.

“(The people of IFG) have a heart to reach out to other people and make them feel comfortable in another country,” Im said.

All international students are required to report to the Office of International Student Affairs, OISA, when they first arrive on campus. OISA is responsible for filing a report of all international students on campus to the Department of Homeland Security.

Keren Kwiatek, assistant director of OISA, said the majority of the problems international students face on campus are language barriers or personal problems. One of the biggest obstacles international students face before entering the U.S., especially since Sept. 11 2001, is obtaining an entry visa.

“One of the main reasons international students come to this university is for the resources here,” said Kwiatek.

As a Top 10 school, the University has a lot to offer, said Kwiatek, including plenty of financial aid for international students.

Rakhee Kalelkar, a senior in LAS, can relate to international students after studying for a year in Spain. As the secretary of International Illini, Kalelkar feels cultural exchange is valuable.

This year, International Illini had overwhelming response from U.S. students who want to be paired with international students through International Illini’s Buddy Program. There are more than 1,000 members in International Illini and 100 students are on a waiting list to be paired with an international student.

“We’re just trying to get in touch with as many international students as we can,” Kalelkar said.

International Illini consists of returned study abroad students and international students who band together for parties, socials, and picnics as well as cultural awareness building and outreach. It’s an effort to provide further cultural exchange and to help the international students have an American friend that can be a source of support, information and social contacts.

“I think you should join (International Illini) if you’re interested in diversity and learning about other cultures,” Kalelkar said.

Jocelyn Davis, sophomore in LAS, was the president of her high school’s International Club. She thinks international students are important to campus life because many Americans are not open to different cultures and few travel outside America.

“We all need to work together to improve our world,” Davis said.

Kim said she feels she fits into campus although she has noticed that most people on campus group together according to their ethnicities. The biggest adjustments Kim said she had to make were adapting to automatic systems on campus such as swiping her I-Card to get into her dorm and eating fried and oily food. She will return to Korea in Jan. 2005, but said she feels the University is the best place for her to improve her English and learn about American culture.

“I’m only here for a year, so I just want to make the most out of my time here,” Kim said.