Last Saturday hundreds of people came to see Carpe Diem. Carpe Diem is essentially a cultural showcase. You can try food or see performances from our many international students. I’m always impressed with how hard they work and how eager they are to share with you a little bit about where they are from.
Sadly, there is not enough interaction between international students and domestic students. SEMO currently is working to create ways for meaningful interaction to occur. While I love Carpe Diem and see it as a great initial step, it is not the most meaningful way to learn about our students’ stories. It takes a conversation and an interest. Many domestic students complain that international students only stick together, that they don’t make the effort to reach out to learn more. Most domestic students haven’t left their own region, let alone their country, and are monolingual and therefore don’t understand how it feels to uproot yourself from everything you know and find familiar to move thousands of miles away to study in a language that most probably is not your native language.
Rather than lecture domestic students I want to tell my story. I am from Doniphan, a tiny all-white town the other side of Poplar Bluff. I grew up in poverty and had no refined social skills when I first came to SEMO, not that I have any now either! What I did have was an interest in learning and meeting people from other places fascinated me.
The year was 1987. I lived in Dearmont. SEMO at that point had students mostly from Japan and Malaysia. My first semester I met Eriko Kishi. She was from an affluent family in Tokyo. Her dad always encouraged her to meet domestic students but none would talk to her. We became great friends and eventually roommates in an apartment off campus for a brief time. Through Eriko I came to know every Japanese student on campus, all 140 of them. I learned so much, partly because I was willing to listen to them.
I joined the Multicultural Student Association and met students from everywhere: Palestine, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Brazil, Panamá and eventually Malaysia. Then I met Denis Vincent, an Indian Malaysian student who was literally working his way through school by working in the cafeteria. He invited me to his birthday party and I met other Malaysian students, Malay, Chinese and Indian, as well as students from Sri Lanka. In fact, Sri Lankan curry was the food they served, my first curry ever, and I fell in love. It was hot and it was yummy! That party broadened my friend circle: Theo, Gary, Ang Leong, Zaki and many others. I would eventually meet Patrick Kian Beng Lee whom I married and was with for 10 years. My friends were great because they weren’t afraid to tell me when I was saying something that was offensive. They were teaching me and I was learning about difference in a safe space. I learned to sing in Malay, Japanese and Cantonese; I learned food; but most importantly, I learned the kindness that can found if I would simply open myself up to it.
Graduate school took me and Patrick to Mizzou. It was cultural adjustment for me to move from this space of Southeast Asia in Southeast Missouri to one that was Spanish speaking Latin America in Central Missouri. I continued to grow, meeting and making friends from Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, Puerto Rico and many more. I lost contact with all my friends except Eriko, whom I visited when I made my first trip to Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, primarily to meet Patrick’s family, a trip I made alone. I would eventually travel to Germany, Spain and Peru. I finished my PhD and became a professor.
Let’s fast forward: Now I am a professor and I promote study abroad and language learning. I have taken students to many countries. I hope to give back to them what I got from my education both in and outside the classroom. Everything I am I owe to my time here at SEMO and the relationships I made with international students. I learned to listen. I learned that the US is not the only country in the world. I learned to not assume anything. I’m still learning these lessons because it is a continuous process.
So I encourage you the next time you see an international student to think about how you would feel if you were alone in another country. How would you want to be treated? We send students on semester long programs and they know what it feels like to be the only person from the US, to perhaps be the only different person in the group, to be struggling to understand. They always come back happy they did because they had experiences that they could not have had in the US. Let’s help our international have a great, meaningful experience.
Oh, and Zaki will be visiting from Malaysia. He and Denis are coming from Denis’ home in Nebraska to see me right after Thanksgiving. If you see us out running around acting like college students, don’t judge…join us!