St. Olaf Sentiments: Life as an International Student

“Anyway, what is a peanut-butter-jelly-bar?”

“What do you do with the pumpkins after you carve them for Halloween?”

“Tell me about the Electoral College.”

“Why would we wanna ‘fight Carleton College’ in our Um Ya Ya fight song?”

There are questions I often ask about things I am not familiar with or find a bit bizarre after spending some months here at St. Olaf. Being a foreign student in the United States, or, to sound a bit fancier, an international Ole, is not an easy phase to go through, especially during the first semester. From being the most confused student in my American Conversations class and not having any prior knowledge whatsoever about Benjamin Franklin or Alexander Hamilton, to finding it hard to understand the accent of American native speakers, to always being that socially awkward person who nods at everything during conversations, to the realization that you stay, alone, on a 300-acre campus over the fall break when everyone goes home.

“Are you not going home for October break?” two JCs asked me when they checked my room. “This is my home,” I said, pointing at my bed heartbrokenly.

This is not my first time studying abroad – I studied in Italy for two years. Since then, life has changed for me. In addition to the knowledge that I gained, I also acquired what I would call “international mindedness,” where I developed a new set of values within myself that allow me to see things differently and to think critically. During the following summer back in my home country, I was not the same person anymore. I started to engage in discussions that are deemed controversial and I was inevitably labeled as “westernized,” and now I guess I will have to deal with a new label, “Americanized,” since I decided to pursue my higher education here in the U.S.

No, it is not that I don’t want to go back and leave the country I called home since I was a baby, but the thing is people see me as too “foreign” to be in my country of origin. And now, here in the United States, I am inescapably foreign. Very foreign, in fact. It’s a bit weird that I have to accept a new tag as a “person of color” due to my skin complexity. I still cannot fully grasp the fact that by default, my skin color makes me vulnerable to the possibility of discrimination, whether I like it or not. This feeling grows stronger, especially after Donald Trump was elected as the president. It’s not that he will personally deport me back to my home country, since I am a documented and legal immigrant here in the States, but some people probably feel that my presence here robs an “ordinary” American of opportunity, and therefore I should not be welcomed here.

Nevertheless, on top of everything, I am grateful to be here at St. Olaf. Oles are people who embrace the same values that I have, people who welcome my presence and make me feel at home. Back home, we have the generalization that all Americans are bad people, due to U.S. involvement in international politics. But coming here to St. Olaf, Oles make me realize that Americans are not always the “villains” that we used to think of back home. There are in fact tons of amazing people here at St. Olaf who fight for the existence of everyone, refuse hatred and intolerance and individuals who are genuinely socially progressed. I can never be thankful enough to be at such a place as St. Olaf.