Editor’s Note: This article is a companion to the Feb. 22 article on the same subject by Sijia Wei ’14.
As I walked through the doors of Dittmann Dance Studio Number One, I nervously thought, “Oh God, what am I doing here?” This was quickly followed by, “Would anyone notice if I did a 180 and fled?” Before I even had time to consider these thoughts, it was too late; I was spotted by my acquaintances. There was no going back. I kicked off my shoes at the doorstep, mustered what courage I had and resolutely put one foot in front of the other to join the St. Olaf international students in their Gangnam Style flash mob practice. I could never imagine it then, but this action would be the beginning of an adventure that would irrevocably change me and my St. Olaf experience.
On that particular day, however, nothing too extraordinary happened. I made a fool of myself trying to dance to a song by some random, aging Korean rapper. I met a few international students whose names I could not hope to pronounce. I went back to my dorm laughing at my antics. Yet, with every rehearsal, I got to know my international acquaintances a little better. I began to find myself returning to Larson with a pleasant smile on my face.
Since those warm September days, many things have changed. The acquaintances I was blessed with meeting during my time in the flash mob have now become my good friends. My roommate from Vietnam, whom I hardly knew at the beginning of the year, has become an incredible friend and has taught me more about life than he could ever know. Now, I have danced in the Diwali festival, cooked Chinese meals with friends and taken advantage of incredible cultural opportunities on campus like International Food Night. Most significantly, I have been blessed with the opportunity to build relationships with international students on a day-to-day basis. I am immeasurably thankful for these changes in my life.
As I reflect back on these recent events, I see that I am a different person than I was five months ago. My time among the international community at St. Olaf has opened my eyes, so I now see what I once missed. Before this year, I was merely aware that international students existed on this campus. They would do their thing; I would do mine. Now, I have been repeatedly humbled and inspired by my new friends from around the world. In truth, the international students I have met are some of the most genuine, courageous and kind people I know.
Let it be clear that I do not wish to discount the countless wonderful people at this school who, like me, have grown up in the U.S. I’m not saying international students are better than those of us who have grown up in the U.S. But, for me, building relationships with international students has been a wake-up call to how big the world really is and how easy it is to overlook that fact. In the past, I often passed a peer from Japan, Costa Rica, Hungary or Madagascar and walked on without a second thought. I have, in many instances, dismissed the thought of befriending, or at least greeting, an international student simply because I felt like I could never relate to them. Outwardly, I became disinterested in them, and they, perhaps in similar fashion, became outwardly disinterested in me.
This is a problem. I am firmly convinced that being unable to relate to a person’s past and culture is not a reason for not building a relationship with them. In fact, it may be all the more of a reason to do so. Perhaps meeting someone from halfway across the world is awkward. It may seem difficult to find common ground on which to relate. Maybe you do finally talk and then feel slightly stupid as you ask them to repeat their name at least five times. And your feelings of ignorance in the face of their life experiences may occur quite often. But this is not a bad thing. Gradually, you learn. You realize that you too have something to contribute to the conversation. You have the incredible ability to welcome them to the U.S. and make this campus less of a study abroad experience and more of a home.
Thus, getting to know international students has helped me grow in many ways. Stereotypes I have held about specific countries and regions of the world have been torn down. My previous assumptions are shattered. I now know that an international student can be just as great a friend as an American student. My pride in my knowledge about the world has been stripped away. I do not want to just know the world, I want to experience it. Thankfully, I have had the incredible opportunity to do so this year across dorm rooms, chairs in Fireside and across the entire campus.
As Oles, we are not only often exposed to concepts and ideas from other nations in the classroom, but we are interested in them as well – and this is a great thing. Our cultural curiosity must persist beyond the classroom walls. As students, we have the wonderful chance to interact with peers from all walks of life. Foreign students do not exclusively make up the diversity on this campus, but they are a large part. My experience getting to know students from around the world has been a truly wonderful one. Now, as I go on my own study abroad experience for the next seven months, I am even more thankful for the learning opportunities I have gained here through my friends from around the world. I have learned, and will continue to learn, more about this wide, beautiful human world we exist in. I am thankful for this every day.
Kyle Obermann ’14 firstname.lastname@example.org is from Austin, Texas. He majors in political science and environmental studies with a concentration in China studies.