Making the Most of My American Experience

Being at the right place at the right time brought Fateh Khalaf from Syria to the U.S. to finish his bachelor’s degree. He’s embraced this experience by working as a resident assistant. Read his success story, challenges, and advice for international students living on campus.

Fateh Khalaf, 26, is an international student from Syria currently studying for his Master’s in business administration at Southern New Hampshire University. He also finished his Bachelor’s degree in hospitality management at SNHU. Read the amazing story of how he came to the U.S. to study and how living and working on campus helped him adjust to life in America. 

“I am very lucky” 

Fateh Khalaf started his degree in hospitality management at a university in Lebanon 2004. When the war broke out in 2006 he had to move back to his home country, Syria. He started working at the Sheraton Hotel to make money, and in the meantime look for another university to finish his degree. Little did he know working at the hotel would help him find a way to finish his bachelor’s degree.

“At the hotel I was the supervisor of the executive club, the V.I.P. club,” Fateh explained. “Each hotel has a private club or a lounge for only V.I.P guests. Businessmen usually hang out there. The President of SNHU was visiting his daughter, she was in Syria writing a book about the Middle East. He was just a customer and he said he liked my service. He enjoyed his stay because I was around and I took good care of him. I told him my story and how I learned about hospitality management.”

From there SNHU President PaulLeBlanc told Fateh about the hospitality management program available at the university. He asked Fateh to figure out how much he could afford and he would see how the university could help pay for the rest.

“He offered to help and I am very lucky,” Fateh humbly shared. “A lot of my peers don’t get an opportunity like this. I am very thankful.”

Moving to America

Fateh moved to SNHU in late 2008. As he landed in the United States, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

Fateh holding the Syrian flag

“I knew the U.S. through movies, I used to watch t.v. shows like CSI and 24, and action movies,” Fateh laughed. “I thought everyone was gangsters. My family asked me if I knew what area I was going to, is it safe? I went from Chicago to New Hampshire. I got here in January and it was very cold. I thought, God this is freezing! People are friendly and helpful. It’s safe and not much crime. It’s a good surprise.”

From the minute Fateh arrived on campus he lived in the residence halls.

“When I first walked in my room I said God! This is very nice!” Fateh laughed. He went on to describe residence halls in Syria . “In Syria it’s one room with four people. There are two bunk beds and a bathtub. During the summer it’s very hot and the winter it’s cold. You have to bring your own heaters to stay warm. The bathrooms aren’t clean. It’s pretty inconvenient. Here [SNHU] it’s much newer. It’s like I’m staying in a hotel!”

Fateh’s roommate was Dave London, the resident assistant on the floor. He explained since he was new this turned out to be very helpful. Dave was very supportive, even helping Fateh find a better cell phone and a better plan.

“This is why I got interested in becoming an RA,” Fateh explained. “I talked to the Resident Director,DaVaughn Vincent Bryan so every time he had programs going on or an event he would send me an email and ask me to join. I appreciated that a lot because there was someone who cared. I got a lot of support from these people. Those people are special and what they do is helping people. This is why I really wanted this job.”

Life as an RA

Fateh and his residents

Fateh was able to get hired as an RA during his last year finishing his Bachelor’s degree.

“I was really into the job,” Fateh laughed. “Before the year started I looked my residents up on Facebook and sent them individual messages. I welcomed them, asked them questions to get to know them better, such as favorite color, sport, so I could make door tags. They could tell I wasn’t American!  At first they were curious to know who I am and where I am from.”

Fateh was able to create a strong community on the floor by being available to help his residents and through programming. He received an “RA of the Month” award for his work.

“I learned a lot being an RA,” Fateh explained. “Even from a language standpoint I was dealing with Americans only. This is a golden opportunity to communicate with those people and improve my English. My speaking skills improved 180 degrees on the job. I’m pretty good at writing and listening, but the speaking part was the hardest.”

He was also able to learn about American culture and events, such as the Super Bowl.

“I know it’s a big deal here, so I wanted to do a program,” Fateh shared. “I brought a projector, chips, soda, and popcorn in the common area. Residents can watch it on the big screen and have fun. I got it all set up and ready and no one showed up. Then after an hour no one showed up. I took down everything and left. I asked a resident I knew well why no one came. The resident shared that all the guys wanted to drink and watch the game, if they came out in the common area they couldn’t drink. I didn’t know this was part of the culture of watching the Super Bowl.”

When Fateh finished his bachelor’s he moved to Maryland for an internship opportunity at a Hyatt hotel. After working there for nine months he moved to Iowa to start a new job with Choice Hotels. It wasn’t what he expected and decided to go back to SNHU to complete graduate school. He was able to get his RA job back, but starting  as an RA again in the middle of the school year brought some new challenges.

“I started back as an RA this past January, since I came back in the middle of the year I went around and introduced myself,” Fateh started. “I sent an email and no one responded. I baked cookies and passed them out. I wanted to get to know them and be friendly. They’re starting to say hi in the hallway now, but it’s harder.”

Why International Students Should Live on Campus 

Fateh explained the biggest issue with international students when studying in the U.S.

“Some students live with other students with the same culture and background off campus and they don’t learn anything outside of school,” Fateh said. “They don’t get involved in American culture and don’t know how Americans live. They stick to their own language and do their own thing. Since I live with Americans I started to learn the language, I had to. After a while I started to learn about what they do, how they live their lives.”

Many international students worry about the language barrier, as well as American students. Both the international student and American student thinks, “Will they understand me?”

“Sometimes Americans can’t understand what I’m saying,” Fateh started. “I remember my RA came to me and said to do this and to do that. I didn’t understand. I had to ask him again. They may be speaking normal, but it’s fast to me. I asked them to say it again and speak very slowly and use simple words.”

Living on campus gives international students the chance to not only improve speaking English, but it provides opportunities to meet American students and make American friends.

“If I wanted to stay here and be comfortable, I have to make friends from this culture,” Fateh said.

Fateh will soon finish his master’s degree and plans to start his career in the hotel management business. Locations may include going back home to Syria or Dubai. 

If you are an international student living in the residence halls and find you are struggling, talk with your RA. This person is here to help you. 

Share your experience living in the residence halls with ISV Magazine!


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