By Mateo Aycardi
Growing up in Colombia was an incredible experience.
With everyone in my family living nearby, my childhood was filled with adventures with cousins and close friends. One of the things I remember most fondly is the fact that most of our time was spent outside, often times playing soccer or setting up small get-togethers where we could play the latest FIFA games.
As I grew up, I began to realize how lucky I was. I imagined myself following in the footsteps of my father in the neurology field. To him, being a doctor was a full-time commitment, and his passion for finding the next person to help was inspiring to say the least. He set up a private practice and was widely considered the best neurologist specializing in headaches in the country. While I was happy potentially following his legacy, there was something that would change the trajectory of my professional pursuits sooner rather than later.
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American culture was incredibly appealing. We’d all heard the ideas back home: America is the land of fresh perspectives, where freedom and diversity perfectly coexist to further drive the nation in its pursuit of liberty and equal opportunity.
It was certainly nothing more than a pipe dream of making the trip to our neighbors to the North, though. After all, we had a big family and very little means at that point in time to really be able to afford such a continental move.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my brief existence, it’s how unpredictable life can be.
Ernesto Aycardi (my father) is one of the hardest working human beings I have ever met. As a man of principles, he had worked meticulously, until he received an offer to relocate the entire lot of us to Warren, New Jersey. His work as a neurologist eventually landed him tremendous fame. But, his work also brought about the single most terrifying moment of my life.
After moving to the States on precisely my 9th birthday, life quickly became as unpredictable as I had ever experienced. I no longer had the liberty of openly communicating my exact thoughts to those around me. In fact, my vocabulary was largely made up of simple phrases to help me get around as best as I could throughout my day. My friendships and relationships with others certainly suffered because of it. But as I quickly came to realize, my aptitude for picking things up quickly would serve me well in my pursuit of integration.
One and a half years passed and I had finally become fluent in English. I saw myself as more American than anything, but continued to speak Spanish at home and with my siblings. To everyone on the outside though, I looked like an ordinary 10-year-old who had grown up in the system just like anybody else. And, after another 12 years, I think I can safely say there is nothing about me that would scream “foreigner” to a stranger on the streets.
Looking back at all the memories, friendships, and knowledge I’ve acquired in my time in the U.S., I now realize that the feeling I’d initially experienced was something that a great deal of international students might be going through when coming to Springfield College.
While the birthplace of basketball is known as the home to diversity and inclusion, there is unfortunately another side to the coin. There are a number of students who feel that the setting they’ve chosen doesn’t value them and help them thrive in the ways that they need. To people like Jay Sophalkalyan, an international student from Cambodia, self-segregation and the mandatory restrictions imposed on them by their institution can become very harmful to their culture.
“I think that self-segregation where people hang out with their own group is very dangerous,” Sophalkalyan said. “One thing I’ve noted is that international students will only hang out with international students, and American students will only hang out with American students. Coming over here it feels a lot different from what I expected.”
Weiying Chen, an international student who previously studied at Beijing Sports University, felt similarly about self-segregation sentiments. To her, this issue is most closely linked to those with Asian cultures and their experiences in America, due to the volume of students who come from China and neighboring countries.
“We have like 20 Chinese students on my floor,” Chen shared. “But I think for me personally, I choose to get out of my comfort zone. I feel like the only thing that really helped was NSO. Most of my best friends are from there. I know that a lot of Chinese students feel embarrassed to speak English. It’s nice for them, because you won’t feel alone, but since you have so many friends that are Chinese, then you don’t really try to talk to those American students.”
But isn’t there a place tasked with making sure that students feel acclimated to the U.S.? Deborah Alm, Director of the International Center, says that this is her mission at Springfield College. Though, Alm understands that an international student’s experience can be widely dependent on the interactions with their American counterparts.
“Normally, students are very happy with their experience here,” Alm stated. “We have a wide range due to language abilities though. If a student comes from Ireland or England, we almost never see them in this office. They just melt into the world and make friends and carry on. But students who need language support will find it more difficult to have true meaningful relationships with Americans.
“We ask ourselves, ‘How do we connect people in a meaningful level?’ I think that more programming in the residence halls is tremendous for people to get to know these students. I am so warmed when I see a picture on social media of students participating in the residence life activities without being needed to be invited to them. If I could get my international students to get to interact more in service-activities – because you get to talk more when you’re working side by side – then maybe that would lead more American students reaching out to international students, and maybe inviting them over to their house for Thanksgiving.”
Artem Brusentsov, an international student from Sweden, came from a somewhat similar culture to the U.S. But he quickly found out how difficult it was to become fully independent.
“I think the hardest part for me would be being by myself,” he said. “I came here because I wanted to move out of the house. [But] when I got here, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know how to cook, do laundry, and basically every week was a skype call to my mom. ‘How do I cook this meat?’ or ‘How do I make this?’ The first week I literally just lived off Snickers bars and walked around, because I didn’t know how to do anything else.”
The experience of traveling to a foreign country is often related to excitement and leisure. Though for a great deal of people like Artem, traveling to America was a chance to move forward intellectually as well as socially.
“The reason I came here was mainly because of school,” he said. “But a lot of people ask me if I had the chance to do this all over again, would I do it? But I think I definitely would, even though there’s been a few bad times.
And I say that because there’s also been a lot of good times. Those things have shaped me to be a better person, and they’ve helped me be more independent. I’ve learned a lot of valuable life skills and met some amazing people.”
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At this point in time, with four years of college behind me, I’ve come to realize how far I’ve come. The difficulties and the challenges I’ve faced when I came to the United States have shaped me in a way I can’t really describe. And with all that I’ve come to know, I realize how meaningful those connections with people of different backgrounds can be.
Perhaps you might be reading thinking ‘I’m done with school’ or ‘It’s tough to make new friends that way.’ And that’s fine! But realize, foreigners live right under your nose. And for the most part, making connections with them and getting to know them can be beneficial for both of you!
I’ve been planning a month-long trip to Europe, and it’s funny that months ago I had little to no connection to some of the places I planned to visit. But through reaching out and trying to further learn about the student experience, I became friends with Artem Brusentsov. And with Sweden as one of the places I’m planning on visiting, Artem made it clear since the first time we met that he would love to show me around.
If there’s one thing that people should take away from this, it would be this: Realize that anybody can be a friend. And you never know what might come out of a fruitful connection with someone unlike yourself.