"Knowing there were many international students was a big motivator for me to enroll here," says Myriam Benlamlih 01 of Morocco and Panama, who spends more time in her twin sister Yasmines dorm, where there are more international students, than in her own residence hall. "I was aware that Mount Holyoke had lots of international students when I applied and it did influence my decision," adds Irina Tsoneva 00, one of MHCs twenty-six Bulgarian students. "I didn't need all the support, but it was comforting to know it was there."
"Once you have a critical mass of international students, support services develop that may not be provided at colleges with lower percentages of international students," explains Joanne Picard MA 86, who works closely with international students as assistant dean of international affairs. New international students at some other colleges must find their own way from airport to campus while also fighting jet lag. But Mount Holyokes new international arrivals are met at the airport and enrolled in a three-day preorientation program to ease the transition from home country to host country. Mansha Daswani 96 recalls that it "made settling in so much easier. I had never been to the U.S. before and knew no one. Being greeted by a wonderful orientation committee and a special program was a huge help."
Theyre also invited to join the active International Club, and given a hefty handbook covering everything from customs information and dealing with culture shock to finding good Asian food in the area. U.S. students who have studied abroad are also on hand during orientation so the newcomers meet Americans as well as each other and become woven into the warp and woof of College life from the very beginning. "Its a hands-on, active system for working with international students, and it makes a difference to international students and to the community at large. Weve been doing it well for a long time," says Terry Rivers 84, assistant dean of international affairs. How long? Our first international student enrolled in 1847. Internationalism remains important and is a key component of the Plan for Mount Holyoke 2003.
Mizue Morita 98, an economics major and music minor from Japan, says studying in America has made her see both her own and American culture differently. "At first I saw Japan as oh, so conservative and America as oh, so great, but now Im able to see both sides of each culture."
The Global Classroom
"Classroom discussion at Mount Holyoke-whether political, cultural, or literary-is inevitably a global conversation, and everyone is richer for that," says Chris Rivers, an associate professor of French. Indian Sumana Bhoothalingam 99 found one economics class centered on American issues but says, "Any student who brought up another point of view was very much encouraged by the professor. And in my anthropology course on language in culture and society, the class is always looking to international students for our perspectives, so I never feel Im being marginalized in any way." Farah Khan 98, an Indian raised in Saudi Arabia and Oman, adds, "Whenever you bring in international students perspectives, you have people talking about their own experiences, and you cant get that from a textbook."
"Having this number of international students means that not many Americans go through Mount Holyoke without being affected by them," says Picard. "American students get a much more cosmopolitan and wide-ranging representation of views and beliefs than they would otherwise get." Devika Sahdev 01 agrees. "When Americans hear other interpretations, they have to stop their Amerocentric point of view. Interacting with others and learning about their cultures helps people get rid of biases they come to college with. Mount Holyoke opens minds in many ways."
International students not only give American students a broader perspective, sometimes they even educate the professors. "A student from Germany dissected, and then helped me get my tongue around, some forbidding compound terms in Hegel and Marx," recalls professor of politics Stephen Ellenburg. "Such mutual self-instruction is enhanced by the splendid diversity of cultures represented at Mount Holyoke."
PHOTO BY MICHAEL ZIDE
Informal get-togethers like this one are part of the ongoing support provided by Joanne Picard (center) and the rest of the Office of International Affairs staff.
And while international students absorb course content, they may also discover a new approach to learning itself. Encouraging students to explore many academic disciplines—a central tenet of liberal arts education—is a brand-new concept for many foreigners. Mansha Daswani recalls what a treat academic choice was after having to limit herself to only three subjects in high school.
With international students making up about half the students in this international politcal economy course, global perspectives are an everyday occurrence.
"By choosing mathematics, economics, and accounting, I never investigated where my other talents lay," she says. At MHC she branched out by becoming involved in campus politics, womens studies and Asian studies, and the campus newspaper. Now shes a contributor to Hong Kongs English-language daily, the South China Morning Post.
Senior Mizue Morita came here from Japan with the firm idea that success in life meant learning to speak English, getting a degree, and going to work in the Japanese foreign ministry. "Mount Holyoke encouraged me to follow my heart rather than evaluating success by a title or salary," says Morita, who decided here to pursue seriously her love of music while also studying economics and chemistry. "Its difficult to find what you really love, but now that Ive found it, Im not willing to let it flow away."
Active class participation is also novel to some. For Morita, the American style was a relief. "In Japan, I felt uncomfortable because I always asked questions in class, although this is very discouraged and some people didnt like me because of that," she explains. "Here its respected." [PHOTO BY MICHAEL ZIDE]
"I have friends at [a college with fewer international students] who say they dont feel comfortable expressing their opinions," says Julia Lee 98 of Malaysia. "Here, knowing I have a lot of other [international student] backers behind me, I dare to express myself."
Whatever their academic background, an MHC education offers international students broader horizons. "Just borrowing a book from the library is still a luxury where I come from," says Romanian Andreea Arambasa 99. "Mount Holyoke has shown me a world where exploration has almost no limits."
A Double Education
International students have a reputation for working hard and achieving academically. Last year 70 percent of senior international students graduated summa, magna, or cum laude, and nearly half of those inducted into Phi Beta Kappa were international students. As in the classroom, social interactions between U.S. and international students enlighten both. Portia Siwawa 99 of Botswana says international students presence dispels myths and stereotypes that some American students may have. "A student once asked me what kind of place I live in, and I thought she meant town or city? But she goes, No, is your house brick or mud or what? Ive learned to accept questions like that as challenges so they dont eat me up inside. Some people grow up in an enclosed space, so we need to tell them what the rest of the world is like. By being here, were able to show people our lives are not just what you see on TV."
Julia Lee '98, cochair of the International Club, says most international students get involved in the club's spring festival of diversity performances. It also sponsors an "awareness week" to "promote our different cultures to the College community." Right, Raquel Lloreda '00 demonstrates a Mexican dance.[PHOTO BY JIM GIPE]
Apart from such occasional lapses in Americans knowledge, cultural most international students say they feel accepted by their American sisters. "Because there are so many of us here, American students feel comfortable around international people," says Devika Sahdev. "I know friends at colleges with fewer international students who sometimes feel almost like theyre in a zoo." "I wear my national costume, the shalwar kameez, and Im totally comfortable going to class in it," says Farah Khan. "But when I was studying at [an Ivy League college with fewer international students], people turned around to look! I felt like an outsider there; never have I felt like that at Mount Holyoke."
Still, many international students tend to stick together. "Its disturbed me sometimes that even though Americans are welcoming to international students, we segregate ourselves," says Shanthi Divakaran 98 of India. "I think it happens because its easier to communicate with someone you can relate to more. International students shouldnt necessarily be able to relate with one another, yet I find it easier to empathize with a Bulgarian than an American because neither of us is on home turf." She notes, however, that "you know Mount Holyoke has truly integrated international students into the community because we are in leadership positions all over campus. Its encouraging to see us everywhere even though were only 11 percent of the population."
The American experience profoundly changes those who travel from everywhere to study here. "Coming to school in the United States made me grow intellectually and taught me a lot about myself in relation to others," says Andreea Arambasa. "Through my contacts with American friends and other international students, I became a bridge between two continents. Two different cultures meet and distill in me what is good in each."
By Emily Harrison Weir